Georgia bill aims to protect religious liberty. Opponents say it's a license to discriminate

Republican Georgia senators vote in favor of a bill that supporters say would protect religious liberty on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024 at the state Capitol in Atlanta. Opponents say the measure would enable discrimination against LGBTQ+ people (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)
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ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia lawmakers are revisiting a nearly decade-old fight over whether the state needs to protect religious rights from being trampled by state and local governments in a measure opponents say would provide a legal shield for people and groups to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people in the name of religion.

That religious protection bill resurfaced Thursday eight years after lawmakers passed a different version of the measure. Then-Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, vetoed it in 2016 under pressure from Georgia's business community, who said they feared it would hurt their ability to attract employees and tourists.

Also Thursday, a House subcommittee advanced a measure that would ban transgender students in public schools from using the bathroom that meets their current gender identity. Supporters say the measure is needed to protect students who aren't transgender, while opponents in sometimes tearful testimony told lawmakers the measure would stigmatize and endanger transgender students who are already subject to bullying.

Both measures are being pushed in an election year when all of Georgia's lawmakers are up for reelection and Republican leaders have become more conservative.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-3 to pass Senate Bill 180, sending it on to the full Senat for more debate. It mirrors a 1993 federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Ed Setzler of Acworth, has pushed for the measure for years, because the federal law doesn't apply to state and local governments, which might deny things like permission to distribute religious literature or a zoning permit for a church without giving enough deference to religious freedom.

“Every Georgian should be free to worship and exercise their faith without unfair federal, state or local government intrusion,” Setzler said.

But opponents warn that private businesses will use the law to do things like deny birth control coverage to their employees, and the legislation could blow holes in local laws that ban discrimination. Georgia has no statewide law banning discrimination.

“It seems like some people have a hate agenda in their religious practices, to deny jobs, housing and dignity to gays and lesbians," said Michael Rohtbaum, senior rabbi at Congregation Bet Haverim, an Atlanta synagogue.

Setzler, though says claims that the bill would enable discrimination are spurious.

“What they’re saying is just simply not so," he said. “The parade of horribles you heard is just simply not so when you look at the states that this applies to.”

The current bill has 23 other Republican senators as cosigners, but the issue has languished, seen as politically radioactive after Deal's veto.

The debate over the bill to regulate student bathroom use has the same outlines, with Republicans saying Georgians need protection and opponents saying the law will be weaponized against transgender students.

“The issue is making sure biological males use the male facilities and biological females use the female facilities," said Rep. Josh Bonner, a Fayetteville Republican who is sponsoring House Bill 936.

Elizabeth Wagner of suburban Berkeley Lake told committee members she's the mother of a transgender boy. She warned the bill would only amp up bullying by forcing him to use the girls' bathroom.

“Anyone with a heart and a handful of brain cells can see this bill for what it is," Wagner said. “It is open hunting season on trans youth in Georgia.”

The measure also covers locker rooms and overnight school trips. It requires that schools find some other bathroom for transgender or other students uncomfortable using the bathroom that matches their birth sex. It was unclear from committee debate whether any Georgia school district has a policy that allows transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding with their current gender identity.

But opponents said that alternate restrooms can often involve a trek across a large high school campus, making it hard for students to access during the school day. Ben Ackerley, who helps lead the Georgia chapter of TransParent, a group for parents of transgender youth, said it also adds to students' isolation.

“That accommodation keeps them separate from their peers, and all they want to do is be included," Ackerley said.

The Movement Advancement Project, a group that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights, says 11 states have passed bills regulating bathroom usage since 2021, including neighboring Tennessee, Alabama and Florida. North Carolina passed in 2016 and repealed in 2017 amid the same kind of controversy that led Deal to veto Georgia's religious liberty bill in 2016.

Georgia's measure would let parents sue school districts if school officials let students use a bathroom that doesn't match their birth sex, and it would let the Professional Standards Commission, which licenses teachers and administrators, to investigate noncompliance.