The Georgia GOP Is in a Civil War Over Anti-Gay “Religious Liberty” Bill

Georgia State Sen. Josh McKoon.

Screenshot from YouTube

I am a big fan of Sen. Josh McKoon, the rabidly anti-gay Georgia Republican legislator who sponsored a failed “religious liberty” bill last spring. Like most conservatives, McKoon initially peddled the laughable line that his bill wasn’t intended to undercut LGBT rights. But when a moderate Republican called his bluff, proposing a simple amendment to clarify that the bill did not legalize discrimination, McKoon let the façade drop. “That amendment,” he fumed, “would completely undercut the purpose of the bill.” With those words, McKoon finally admitted what so many would not: The whole point of “religious liberty” bills is to nullify LGBT nondiscrimination measures.

Since then, the Georgia GOP has split wide open over McKoon’s bill. Religious conservatives in the party vehemently support it; business-minded moderates, who fear an Indiana-style backlash, vigorously oppose it. (The latter camp was, until recently, led by Jewish Rep. Mike Jacobs and supported by the Anti-Defamation League, which has led to some disturbing dog whistles.*) Now McKoon is lining up his soldiers for the next charge—and, in doing so, dropping all pretexts about the true intentions of his bill. In a remarkable speech, McKoon pilloried companies like Delta, Coca-Cola, and Home Depot, which are headquartered in Georgia and spoke out against the bill. These companies, McKoon claimed, are the main roadblock to the bill’s passage:

We’ve had this problem because very large multi-national corporations that are headquartered in this state—their executives, many of whom are not from Georgia, have different values than you and I do. They think that their cultural norms, their liberal, far-left cultural norms, should be applied to our state.

McKoon should be commended for his honesty. Sure, he’s cribbing the tactics of Southern white supremacist groups in the civil rights era, who regularly complained that groups like the NAACP were just outside agitators who didn’t share or understand Southern values. But in doing so, he has abandoned the pretense that his bill is about anything other than legally disadvantaging LGBT people. Real Georgians, McKoon implies, should reject these liberal elite outsiders’ “far-left cultural norms”—and embrace discrimination.

I recognize that, for more tolerant Americans, it might be uncomfortable to watch lawmakers use white supremacist language to argue openly for the legal debasement of LGBT Georgians. But I promise—it really is better this way. For nearly two years, anti-gay activists were either too pusillanimous or mendacious to own up to the objective of their “religious liberty” measures. If McKoon and his ilk are truly ready to move beyond such obfuscation, we can finally discuss in earnest whether individuals and businesses should be given special rights to discriminate. For conservatives, who are already facing repercussions at the polls for their extremism, that’s a losing debate. Good for McKoon for having the courage to frame it honestly. 

*Correction, Aug. 31, 2015: This article originally indicated that Mike Jacobs is still a legislator. He was appointed as a judge and has left the Georgia House of Representatives.