Georgia’s former attorney general is calling for the “swift death” of legislation that has been opposed by LGBT rights groups, even though he once defended the state’s anti-gay “sodomy laws” while in office.
Michael Bowers, former attorney general of Georgia, released a statement on Tuesday condemning two “religious liberty” bills currently making their way through the state legislature. The roughly identical pieces of legislation are modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and are purportedly aimed at “preventing government overreach” that would harm religious Americans. But critics say the bills ultimately constitute a license to exclude — particularly against LGBT people — in the name of religious freedom, as the proposed laws could allow for discriminatory acts such as business owners who deny service to same-sex couples by citing their faith.
Bowers echoed this sentiment during a press conference on Tuesday.
“The bills, in my judgement, are nothing but an excuse to discriminate,” he said. “The opportunity to use this as a religious excuse [to discriminate] is so broad, it’s almost impossible to limit. I think that has the potential to be a disaster.”
Bowers, who was a Democrat until joining the Republican Party in 1994, expanded on his thoughts in a statement, procured by Buzzfeed.
“This legislation is not about gay marriage, or contraception, or even so-called ‘religious freedom,’” he wrote. “It is more important than all of these, because it ultimately involves the rule of law. Regardless of whether one agrees with a particular policy, or if it offends one’s religious sensibilities, the proposed RFRA is bad for all Georgians of good faith, or for that matter any faith whatsoever. It is not just bad public policy; it is ill-conceived, unnecessary, mean-spirited, and deserving of a swift death in the General Assembly.”
“The obvious unstated purpose of the proposed RFRA is to authorize discrimination against disfavored groups … the bill enacts an excuse to discriminate in the broadest sense.”
Bowers’ opposition to the bills is eliciting surprise among some Georgia lawmakers, primarily because he repeatedly defended Georgia’s anti-gay “sodomy laws” while serving as the state’s attorney general. In 1982, Bowers was sued by Michael Hardwick, a gay man who was arrested for having sex with another man under Georgia’s anti-sodomy law. The case, Bowers v. Hardwick, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme court, where judges sided with Bowers and upheld the right to criminalize consensual sex between partners of the same gender (the decision was eventually struck down in 2003). Later, in 1992, Bowers cited the same anti-sodomy law to justify rescinding a job offer to a woman after he learned she was a lesbian. The woman sued, but Bowers once again prevailed in court.
Bowers’ sudden change of heart about LGBT issues is a hopeful sign to many equality advocates, but it may also hint that anti-gay stances aren’t as lucrative as they once were. Bowers was hired by Georgia Equality, the state’s largest LGBT rights group, to provide legal analysis of the bills, and he has been known to leap at profitable ventures. When Bowers started his own government relations and lobbying firm in 2003, he listed one objective: “to make money.”
State-level religious liberty bills have become popular among Republicans throughout the country, but while many have been introduced, almost none of have been signed into law: one RFRA bill that passed the Arizona state legislature last year was even vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer (R) in the face of widespread opposition. In Michigan and Indiana, advocates of such bills have openly admitted that their goal is to discriminate against LGBT people.