Georgia Republicans have used a number of nefarious methods to get their way over the years, but earlier this week they busted out an especially sneaky new tactic: voting on legislation when Democrats are, um, temporarily indisposed.
The incident occurred during a Georgia Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on Monday, where assembled lawmakers discussed a number of proposed laws over the course of the day. Looming over the committee was S.B. 129, a controversial “religious liberty” bill that mirrors the federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act but that many argue could be used to discriminate against LGBT people. Committee chairman Josh McKoon (R-Columbus) authored the bill, but it is opposed by Democrats such as Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta), who tabled the proposed legislation when it was brought up to the committee last week.
After several hours of deliberations at Monday’s committee meeting, however, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that Fort asked McKoon if he could pause work for a moment to use the bathroom. McKoon obliged, but while the Democrat hurried to the lavatory, the rest of the committee — which consisted entirely of Republicans once Fort left the room — quickly pulled the “religious liberty” bill off the table and began voting. A staffer alerted other Democrats who rushed to the scene, but the committee had already passed the bill by the time lawmakers arrived.
“[McKoon] knew I was going to come back,” Fort told the Constitution. “It seems to me the right thing would have been to delay the vote until all the members who had appeared at the committee were in the room.”
The committee’s cloak and dagger shenanigans are but the latest act in an ongoing drama surrounding the “religious liberty” bill, which parallels a similar proposal currently moving through the state house. LGBT rights advocates and clergy in Georgia have blasted both bills as unfairly biased and potentially dangerous to minority groups, as have unlikely allies such as former Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers. Bowers, who once supported anti-gay policies in the Peach State, held a press conference last week to denounce the proposed laws as “nothing but an excuse to discriminate.” Georgia Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) even tried to change the senate bill to limit its potential to discriminate, proposing an amendment last month that would require the government “to state clearly that [it has] a compelling interest in protecting children from abuse and neglect and to prevent unlawful discrimination.”
When the bill was forced through the committee on Monday, however, Cowsert — who was criticized by religious conservatives for his attempt to defang the bill — said he was “satisfied” with the bill without the amendment.
The bill now moves to a formal vote in the state senate, but the exact date is not yet finalized.