A prominent Georgia Republican best known for his defense of sodomy laws in a 1986 Supreme Court case delivered withering criticism Tuesday of two proposed "religious liberty" bills in the Georgia state legislature that would allow companies to discriminate based on gender identity and sexual preference.
Mike Bowers, a former Georgia attorney general, released a seven-page analysis of the two proposed laws after a request from the LGBT rights group Georgia Equality. Bowers called the proposed laws "ill-conceived, unnecessary, mean-spirited, and deserving of a swift death," and outlined all the ways the proposals would undermine law in the state.
It's unclear how the partnership between Georgia Equality and Bowers, who has a history of supporting — not vocally opposing — anti-gay legislation, came about. Bowers was not immediately available for comment Tuesday. Georgia Equality did not respond to multiple VICE News inquiries.
The fight in Georgia over the so-called religious liberty bills is similar to debates playing out across other US states, including Utah, Indiana, Michigan, and Mississippi, where conservative lawmakers are proposing laws that would allow businesses and government employees to refuse service based on their religious beliefs.
The Mormon Church held a press conference last month to announce support for some anti-discrimination laws for Utah's LGBT residents, but only if the legislature were also to pass a religious exemption law. The laws proposed in Utah include a bill that would allow city clerks to deny marriage licenses to gay couples based on the clerk's religious beliefs — despite the fact that gay marriage is legal in the state.
Bowers noted that the proposed legislation in Georgia and elsewhere coincides with the legalization of gay marriage in states across the country, as well as the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision, which said companies can be exempt from providing birth control to employees based on religious beliefs.
"The obvious unstated purpose of the proposed RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] is to authorize discrimination against disfavored groups," Bowers wrote, noting that the law would authorize anyone to discriminate in the "broadest and most arbitrary sense," merely by invoking religion.
Bowers wrote that the bill would "permit everyone to become a law unto themselves in terms of deciding what laws they will or will not obey, based on whatever religious tenets they may profess or create at any given time." He also invoked the possibility that people could use the law to not vaccinate their children, to "put hoods back on the KKK," and even deny marriage licenses to mixed-religion couples.
Bowers pointed out that any time a person wanted to disobey a government requirement, they could invoke their religious beliefs.
State Senator Josh McKoon, the sponsor of one of the proposed laws, SB 129, told VICE News in a statement Monday that he introduced the bill to "restore the standard for a government infringing on someone's ability to freely exercise his or her religion."
McKoon said his bill refers to the original federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, a law passed in 1993 and partially overturned in 1997 that limited the government's ability to "substantially burden a person's exercise of religion." He said 31 other states also have religious exemption bills. According to an analysis by the Washington Post, many of those laws were passed to closely to mirror the 1993 federal law, before gay marriage became a national issue.
McKoon argued that critics are so focused on wild what-if situations that they ignore how the laws run smoothly elsewhere. He pointed to states like Texas and Oregon as examples of how religious freedom laws can be successful without devolving into people acting lawlessly and then invoking their religious beliefs. He also dismissed any notion that creating a religious freedom law would hurt Georgia's economy.
"When people opposing this bill use some extreme language to attempt to distract from the fact that there is broad support for a bill like this, I refer them to states like Oregon that have not seen these spikes in discrimination or states like Texas that have continued to be economic destinations," McKoon wrote in his statement.
State Representative Sam Teasley, the sponsor of the other bill, HB 218, did not return calls from VICE News seeking comment.
The two bills have yet to clear the judiciary committees of Georgia House and Senate.
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen
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