Georgia, Mississippi Backtrack On Bills Mirroring Arizona Anti-Gay Legislation

Jo Beaudry holds up a sign as she joins nearly 250 gay rights supporters protesting SB1062 at the Arizona Capitol, Friday, Fe
Jo Beaudry holds up a sign as she joins nearly 250 gay rights supporters protesting SB1062 at the Arizona Capitol, Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, in Phoenix. The protesters gathered demanding Gov. Jan Brewer veto legislation that would allow business owners to refuse to serve gays by citing their religious beliefs. The governor must sign or veto Senate Bill 1062 by the end of next week. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

WASHINGTON -- After a national uproar over controversial "religious freedom" legislation in Arizona, Georgia and Mississippi have now backtracked on similar bills, joining other states where such measures have failed due to concerns that they would be discriminatory toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.

In Georgia, the "Preservation of Religious Freedom Act" has been tabled and doesn't appear to be going anywhere.

State Sen. Joshua McKoon (R), one of the sponsors of the bill, SB 377, told The Huffington Post Thursday that his legislation passed out of the Judiciary Committee and was set to be considered by the Rules Committee next Monday. But it's now been taken off the calendar, effectively killing it in this session unless it gets rescheduled.

"I was told it's still an open question as to whether it will be added to the calendar," said McKoon. "So your guess is probably as good as mine as to whether they're ultimately going to allow a floor vote on it. But as it stands today, it is not going to be considered on Monday."

In Mississippi, the state House Judiciary B committee discussed the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" and is considering rewording the bill to address concerns that it would discriminate against LGBT individuals, according to The Clarion-Ledger.

On Wednesday night, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) vetoed SB 1062, a similar "religious freedom" bill that opponents said would allow businesses to refuse service to LGBT individuals. Brewer's veto came after activists, businesses and politicians nationwide spoke out in opposition to the bill.

McKoon told HuffPost that he absolutely believed the outcry over the Arizona legislation hurt his bill's chances in Georgia.

"I think that the sort of hysteria and misinformation about this entire issue had an awful lot to do with it being held up," he said. "I think there's a lot of concern that there's this controversy around it. So yes, I think that definitely had something to do with it."

McKoon insisted that his bill was not intended to be discriminatory and was instead intended to protect individuals who practice their religious beliefs. He also pointed out that even under current law, the state doesn't outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

"Under Georgia law, that can happen today, without my Senate Bill 377 ever seeing the light of day. My legislation doesn't affect that scenario, right? That's something that if the legislature wanted to address it from a public policy standpoint, it could," said McKoon.

Other states have also pulled back on similar bills during the recent debate over the Arizona legislation. In Oklahoma, the lead author of one such bill said he will be rewriting it and it likely won't be considered during the current session.

On Wednesday, state lawmakers in Ohio also pulled the plug on their legislation after increased pressure from civil rights groups. According to the Northeast Ohio Media Group, the lawmakers plan to draft new language that will protect religious liberties without discriminating against individuals.

These measures follow a number of high-profile stories of discrimination from around the country. Businesses are getting blowback after turning away same-sex couples and denying them wedding cakes, photography services and access to venues.

McKoon isn't giving up completely on his bill, however.

"If it doesn't move and the good people of my district see fit to send me back here for another two-year term, I'll reintroduce it next year, but obviously I would prefer the opportunity to have it heard on the merits by the full Senate Monday and to have the opportunity for a vote," he said.

States Considering "Religious Freedom" Bills:

ARIZONA: SB 1062 has garnered the most national attention and advanced the most quickly. The legislation says the state shall not "burden a person's exercise of religion," effectively allowing businesses to refuse service to LGBT individuals. Even though same-sex marriage is not legal in the state, restaurants could turn away same-sex couples celebrating an anniversary, and pharmacists could refuse HIV and hormone replacement therapy drugs. On Wednesday evening, Brewer vetoed the bill.

GEORGIA: The state's Preservation of Religious Freedom Act would affirm the "right to act or refuse to act in a manner substantially motivated by a sincerely held religious tenet or belief whether or not the exercise is compulsory or a central part or requirement of the person's religious tenets or beliefs." Delta Air Lines, Atlanta's largest employer, has already spoken out against the measure. The bill has been tabled in the state Senate, effectively stopping it this session.

HAWAII: HB 1624 aimed to prevent the state from passing laws that burden the exercise of religious freedom. It has been effectively killed for the session after a majority of the state House voted to send it back to committee.

IDAHO: HB 427 would also expand protections to individuals on "religious freedom" grounds, allowing them protection if they discriminate against gays and lesbians. A companion measure, HB 426, would have specified that professionals who invoked these religious beliefs would not lose their occupational licenses. Idaho Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane concluded that both measures would be vulnerable to constitutional challenge. State Rep. Lynn Luker (R), the sponsor of both bills, announced last week that he would pull HB 427 from consideration and return it to committee, saying that "many misinterpreted the intent to be a sword for discrimination." HB 426 never received a committee hearing and is not expected to move forward.

KANSAS: HB 2453 was particularly troubling to LGBT rights advocates. It said that no individual, religious entity or government official had to provide any service "if it would be contrary to the sincerely held religious beliefs of the individual or religious entity regarding sex or gender." Therefore, a government official could refuse to process the employment benefits of a gay individual on the grounds of "religious freedom." The bill passed the state House but stalled in the state Senate when Republican leaders determined it went too far and was discriminatory. On Feb. 18, the chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee said he had no plans to take up the measure.

MAINE: LD 1428 was similar to Arizona's legislation, saying that the government could not infringe upon a person's religious freedom except in cases of "compelling state interest." Opponents worried that the bill would not only allow discrimination against LGBT individuals, but could also infringe upon the Affordable Care Act's mandate that insurance companies cover contraceptives. Both the state House and Senate voted it down last week.

MISSISSIPPI: In January, the Mississippi state Senate passed SB 2681, which said the state could not "burden a person's right to the exercise of religion." On Thursday, a day after Arizona vetoed its version of the legislation, the state House Judiciary B committee said it was considering rewording the bill to address concerns that it would discriminate against LGBT individuals, according to The Clarion-Ledger.

MISSOURI: On Monday, state Rep. Wayne Wallingford (R) filed SB 916, which he said was loosely based on the legislation introduced in Arizona and Kansas. Justifying his measure, he said he also wanted to make sure that there was no discrimination against religious individuals. "There's discrimination kind of on both sides. I certainly don't want any discrimination in the workforce," Wallingford said. "But I'm also concerned about discrimination going the other direction." SB 916 has not yet been assigned to committee.

OKLAHOMA: SB 1846 was introduced in the state Senate in January, but in the midst of the debate over the Arizona bill, the measure's House author said it would be rewritten and likely won't get considered during this legislative session.

OHIO: HB 376 mirrored Arizona's "religious freedom" legislation. Under pressure from activists on Wednesday, the two lead sponsors agreed to withdraw the bill from consideration.

OREGON: In November, a group calling itself Friends of Religious Freedom unveiled a ballot measure "intended to exempt a person from supporting same-sex ceremonies in violation of deeply held religious beliefs." Opponents and supporters of the measure are now negotiating over the 15-word title that will appear on the ballot and is required before the bill can appear before voters.

SOUTH DAKOTA: SB 128 is intended to "protect the citizens and businesses of South Dakota regarding speech pertaining to views on sexual orientation and to provide for the defense of such citizens and businesses." Last week, a state Senate committee effectively killed the bill by deferring it to the 41st day of the 40-day legislative session.

TENNESSEE: SB 2566 was quickly dubbed the "Turn the Gays Away" bill by activists. It would have protected businesses that denied services related to a civil union, domestic partnership or same-sex marriage. After significant backlash from activists and the business community, sponsors of the legislation in the state Senate dropped the bill last week and effectively killed it, for now.



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