ATLANTA (AP) — Former Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers said Feb. 24 that two bills being debated by lawmakers create an excuse to discriminate against LGBT people or break state laws and are “deserving of a quick death.”
Bowers warned that the bills could act as a defense for a marriage license clerk refusing to issue the document to gay or mixed-religion couples or for parents opposed to vaccinations or school courses.
“I’m no bleeding-heart liberal, I’ll tell you right up front,” he said at a news conference. “But I don’t think we need these, and I think it would be a black eye for my home state.”
The legislation would forbid the state government from infringing on a person’s religious beliefs unless the government can prove it has a compelling interest.
Bowers said he was hired to do the analysis by Georgia Equality, an LGBT advocacy organization among the opponents arguing that the legislation would open the door to discrimination.
Supporters dismissed his report as the product of a hired gun. They point to a federal religious freedom law that passed in 1993 with bipartisan support and other states with similar legislation, and they say there is no proof of such cases elsewhere.
Sen. Josh McKoon, sponsor of the Senate bill, called Bowers’ news conference a “great public relations move” but said it won’t affect members’ discussions.
“I just think that when your argument is intellectually bankrupt then what you have to do is go get yourself a really good advocate to kind of distract people,” McKoon said. “If I was them, I would want to get the finest attorney I could because the facts are not on their side.”
Bowers was no friend to the gay rights movement while attorney general. The Democrat-turned-Republican defended the state’s anti-sodomy law before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986, after a man arrested for having sex with another man challenged it. Several years later, Bowers withdrew a job offer after learning the female candidate was a lesbian and planned to marry another woman.
Robin Shahar, the woman who sued after Bowers rescinded that job offer, said in an interview Feb. 23 that she wasn’t surprised to hear he would oppose the bills on a legal basis. She praised him in part, saying that working with Georgia Equality “shows that he is going beyond the label of gay and lesbian and transgender and bisexual.”
But she acknowledged that his history is different from his current work. “When you think about individuals in this country who have had the most negative effect on the advancement of LGBT rights, Mr. Bowers is one of those people at the top of the list,” Shahar said.
In his analysis, Bowers, 73, only hinted at his own role in the history of gay rights. He told reporters Feb. 24 that he “has changed some” but declined to give specifics.
McKoon tried to fast-track the Senate bill last week. But a fellow Republican, Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, unsuccessfully asked to add language explicitly preventing discrimination to the bill in committee and then joined several other Republicans and Democrats on the panel voting to table the bill.
McKoon said he’s hopeful all Republican members of the committee will support a future version. The House version also remains in committee.