After Giving 30 Minutes Notice, Senate Rules Committee Hears From Only 2 Witnesses on 'First Amendment Defense Act'
Anti-gay Georgia senators apparently aren't interested in hearing public testimony on the so-called "First Amendment Defense Act," a bill that would open the door to rampant discrimination against same-sex couples and their children.
After providing just 30 minutes of public notice, the powerful Senate Rules Committee staged a brief hearing Monday morning on GOP Sen. Greg Kirk's Senate Bill 284, which LGBT legal experts have characterized as even more dangerous than Indiana's infamous Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2015.
If a hearing is to be anything, it should be a meaningful opportunity for the public to be heard. Not this. https://t.co/ojJtJB6TPM— Anthony M. Kreis (@AnthonyMKreis) February 1, 2016
The Rules Committee, which decides whether bills advance to the Senate floor, was scheduled to meet at noon, but instead convened shortly after 11 a.m. without releasing an agenda. The committee heard from only two witnesses on SB 284 — Kirk and former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard, a lobbyist for the LGBT group Georgia Equality.
Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham later characterized the surprise hearing as a a "shrewd" move by supporters of the bill, Sen. Jeff Mullis, a co-sponsor of FADA who chairs the Rules Committee.
"This is how they feel they need to operate here in Georgia," Graham said, according to a report from the Associated Press.
Kirk's bill, considered the worst of at least seven anti-LGBT religious freedom measures introduced in Georgia this year, was also the first to receive a hearing. SB 284 is a state version of the proposed federal law designed to give virtually every individual and entity — from government employees and contractors to for-profit businesses — a license to discriminate against not only same-sex couples and their children, but also anyone who's had sex outside of wedlock.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that several of the committee’s majority Republican members expressed support for the bill during the hearing.
“It’s preventing discrimination against the religious community,” GOP Sen. Hunter Hill said.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson questioned the bill's impact on the state's economy, according to the AP.
Woolard told the panel that ironically, FADA would violate the First Amendment by protecting opponents of same-sex marriage and not supporters.
“This bill creates a law for a single point of view, and that’s unconstitutional,” Woolard told the committee. "It would be allowing organizations that receive federal or state funding to discriminate. It would repeal some laws at the local level."
Although the committee didn't vote on the bill, Monday's surprise hearing seems even more egregious given that it occurred on the same day a civil rights group met in Atlanta to release a report on how "religious freedom" legislation has been used for centuries to deny equality to blacks, women and other minorities.
"The introduction of more than a half dozen bills to sanction the denial of equal rights for LGBT people in Georgia — these arguments are not new. But they are pernicious and they are dangerous," said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference Education Fund, which released "Striking a Balance: Advancing Civil and Human Rights While Preserving Religious Liberty."
"Religious liberty is a sacred American ideal, not a cynical strategy to oppose LGBT equality, the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, inter-racial marriage, or the Americans with Disabilities Act," Henderson said.
Six GOP presidential candidates have pledged to support the federal version of FADA. Watch Matt Baume discuss the federal bill below.