Senators Debate “Religious Freedom.”

Tuesday night at Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Midtown Atlanta, state senators Greg Kirk (R), of Americus, and Vincent Fort (D) of Atlanta kicked off a series of four debates that will take place around the state on the subjects of “Religious Freedom, the Pastor Protection Act and the First Amendment Defense Act.”

The other debates will be on the same subjects, and will take place (or have already taken place) this week in Macon, Tifton, and Savannah.

Senator Kirk, a former Baptist preacher, was the introducer of the “First Amendment Defense Act” during the last Georgia legislative session. He was also a proponent of the “Pastor Protection Act” and the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Parts of all three bills were incorporated into HB 757, which was vetoed by Governor Deal this past spring.

Senator Fort, the minority whip in the upper chamber, is a former history professor who has been a strong supporter of the LGBT community for many years. I saw him speak at an event while my lawsuit was ongoing; he recognized me without introduction, gave me his card, and encouraged me to reach out to him if there was anything he could do to help.

You’d think Deal’s veto would mean that we’d seen the last of these anti-LGBT bills in the Peach State. You’d be wrong; Kirk and fellow Republican Sen. Josh McKoon have both pledged to re-introduce such bills during next year’s legislative session.

Turnout to the debate was light; there couldn’t have been more than sixty people in the pews. I should note that Saint Mark is a liberal Methodist church in the heart of Midtown, so its leadership and congregation are either LGBT themselves or are solid allies. I think the debate wasn’t promoted well; I learned about it from a Georgia Equality email, and after the fact some people told me they wished they’d known about it.

What’s next? Polygamy? —Sen. Greg Kirk

Content was also light; if you’ve been following the emergence of these “religious freedom” bills as they’ve been festering in statehouses around the country, you know what they’re about, and you wouldn’t have learned anything new at this event. Below are some quick takes, borrowed from my own live tweets during the debate. Any erroneous details are due to my own poor recollection.

Sen. Kirk claimed the “Pastor Protection Act” would ensure that clergypeople cannot be forced to perform a wedding they object to on religious grounds.

Sen. Fort retorted that no pastor can be forced to perform any wedding he or she doesn’t want to, on any grounds, religious or not.

Kirk argued that bills such as these are simply “common sense”; they’ll protect the religious without affecting anyone else.

Fort’s retort was that they offer no protections that aren’t already guaranteed by the Constitution and they will expose Georgia to boycotts and other economic harms like what’s happening in North Carolina in the wake of HB2’s passage.

When a moderator asked Kirk if same-sex couples should be a protected class under the law, Kirk admitted that post-Obergefell, that is a matter of settled law. But then he did the usual “slippery slope” scaremongering by asking, “What’s next? Polygamy?”

In the question and answer portion of the program, an audience member asked, “Senator Kirk, you keep saying ‘traditional marriage.’ Define that.”

He took the bait, and said “traditional marriage is marriage as defined in the Bible”; the questioner pounced, reminding him that the Bible pretty much celebrates polygamy. Kirk backpedaled, explaining that he’d meant traditional marriage is what most Christians believe it to be. Slippery slope, indeed.

Senator Fort won raucous applause when he declared that Georgia needs a comprehensive antidiscrimination law. This was definitely his crowd. I wonder how his message will be received in Tifton.

I’ll close by noting that Fort and Kirk were both unfailingly polite to and respectful of each other, of the moderators, and of the audience. Anyone who turned out hoping to see a Republican primaries-style uglyfest would have been disappointed.


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