After 14 months of bitter wrangling, Georgia's legislative session ended with lawmakers failing to pass a contentious religious freedom bill.
The defeat comes after a nationwide furor over similar legislation in Indiana and Arkansas. Opponents argued that the bill would provide a legal basis for discrimination against gays and lesbians. On Tuesday, demonstrators marched to the Capitol here, carrying signs reading, "No discrimination in Georgia" and "We are not Indiana."
The proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act would have forbid governments from infringing on a person's exercise of religion without compelling interest. It would have covered individuals and religious organizations, as well as companies with a small number of shareholders.
The bill was adopted by Georgia's Senate on March 5, then languished in the House. As gay rights activists rallied against the bill, a rift emerged in Georgia's GOP.
In the end, it was a Republican House member who scuppered the bill by adding language last week that would prevent it from being used as a defense for discrimination. The bill's sponsors immediately tabled the proposal, and the legislative session ended Thursday.
In a telephone interview Friday, state Sen. Joshua McKoon vowed he would try to revive the bill next January. "We've got a handful of people made nervous by this smear campaign," he said. "If we had had floor vote yesterday, I'm confident it would have passed."
For Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who had indicated he would support legislation that mirrored the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the dispute over the bill had become too rancorous. On Thursday, he urged lawmakers who sought to revive the bill to stick to the language of the 1993 act and to include an anti-discrimination clause.
McKoon said he intended to hew to federal law and to resist adding what he described as unnecessary anti-discrimination language. "It's a tempest in a teapot," he said. "A handful of professional activists have done a fantastic job of misrepresenting what this legislation is about. If you want to get down to brass tacks: Are we going to see people denied medical treatment, or mistreated in any way? No. It's a firm no. There's no gray area."
The federal religious freedom act applies only to the federal government, not to states and other local municipalities. Over the years, 21 states have passed their own versions of the law.
"Opponents say this bill is going to allow people to discriminate in the name of religion," McKoon said. "If that's the case, can you point to a single case when the statute was used to discriminate against someone?"
McKoon said he was motivated to introduce the bill out of concern that religious expression in Georgia was becoming more taboo.
The issue of religious tolerance had become so fraught, he said, that last year a Republican colleague introduced a Georgia law that allowed public school students and staff to offer traditional greetings such as "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Hanukkah." He added that his bill would apply to all religions, citing a 2008 case of a Georgia judge who ordered a Muslim woman to remove her head scarf in court.
"It's hard for me to avoid picking up a newspaper or watching television without seeing an example of government being hostile to people of faith," he said. "Our culture has people so nervous even about observing a religious holiday. We need to look globally at this problem and figure out how to solve it."