‘It’s open season on people of faith in Georgia’

By Greg Corombos

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The sponsor of the Georgia religious freedom legislation vetoed by Gov. Nathan Deal says he is “extremely disappointed” in Deal after lawmakers bent over backward to craft a bill to satisfy the governor and the business community and protect limited freedoms for clergy and institutions of faith.

“I think the message the governor sent with the veto is that it’s open season on people of faith in Georgia,” said State Sen. Josh McKoon, sponsor of Georgia’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

He says the veto especially stung after the governor’s office had been directly involved in the crafting of the bill.

“This bill was the result of a lot of negotiation between house and senate leadership,” McKoon told WND and Radio America. “The governor’s office was involved, as was he business community. We certainly felt like we had a achieved a compromise that was acceptable to all sides.”

After the bill passed easily in both chambers of the Georgia Legislature, a fierce public relations campaign rose up to oppose the bill, especially among big businesses. Movie studios threatened to stop filming in the state if the act became law, and the NFL said it could negatively impact Atlanta’s chances of hosting the Super Bowl in a few years.

“I think the governor caved to pressure from the business community, from largely empty threats from out-of-state companies that were suggesting that they would withdraw or reduce their business in the state if the legislation passed,” McKoon said.

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Most baffling to McKoon is how much he and his allies “watered down” the original bill to appease Gov. Deal and businesses.

“We had done everything we’d been asked to do to just try to get a modest protection for houses of worship, religious schools and religious nonprofits,” he said. “If we can’t protect those in a state that’s run by the Republican Party, it was was a very bad day for people of faith in Georgia.”

Listen to the WND/Radio America interview with Georgia State Sen. Josh McKoon:

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The original bill had protections for vendors like photographers, florists and cake bakers who believe serving a specific event would violate their consciences. But that was stripped to win the backing of Gov. Deal and business leaders. McKoon and other sponsors also agreed to allow the law to be trumped by any federal or state law addressing discrimination.

McKoon said the original bill was much stronger.

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“We really narrowed the focus of the bill in terms of who would be protected,” he said. “We sort of went from a wide-open person definition that would apply to any flesh and blood individual, any for-profit business, really any entity at all to a very narrow definition that was just primarily limited to house of worship, religious schools and religious nonprofits.”

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The fight is not over. Given the lopsided majorities in the Georgia Legislature, supporters of the bill are trying to override Deal’s veto.

“People are continuing to work on that issue to see if there’s the necessary support to override the governor’s veto,” McKoon said. “I think we’ve got the numbers in the state senate to do it.”

However, 120 votes are needed to override a veto in the Georgia House of Representatives. Republicans hold 118 seats, so at least some Democratic support would be needed.

Gov. Deal’s office has not been in touch with McKoon since the veto was announced. But McKoon said Deal’s reasoning given at his press conference was weak.

“The governor said he didn’t think this law was necessary and suggested people of faith were inappropriate to seek government relief for protection of the right of free exercise,” he said. “I just shook my head at that. I don’t understand the rationale at all.”

“He made a reference to the founders in that the founders left this issue alone,” McKoon said. “Obviously the founders thought it was important to attach the First Amendment to the Constitution, which explicitly protects the right of free exercise.”

McKoon called a lack of protection for free exercise of religion “unhealthy for our state” and said Deal is caving to the insatiable demands of the far left.

“He talked about [his veto] coming from a place of wanting to welcome people,”he said. “I think what’s he’s done is he’s welcomed radical, far-left activists that want to establish a religion. The religion they want to establish is one of atheistic secular humanism.”

McKoon said he will also be pushing for a strong statement of support for religious freedom legislation at the Georgia Republican convention in June.

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