- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 24, 2015

ATLANTA (AP) - A Georgia House panel on Tuesday heard hours of testimony but did not vote on a divisive “religious freedom” bill, one of a series of measures surfacing in at least 13 states that critics say could provide legal cover for discrimination against gays and transgender people.

Rep. Wendell Willard, chairman of the special subcommittee to the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, said the group will meet again Wednesday for a vote. The full committee would meet Thursday.

He gave some indication that committee members will propose amendments. Proponents have pushed for a House vote without changes to the bill.

The bill got decisive approval from the state Senate earlier this month but had received no House discussion until Tuesday’s subcommittee. House leaders have been intensely lobbied by both sides. Lawmakers plan to wrap up the session on April 2.

The Georgia bill would forbid state government from infringing on a person’s religious beliefs unless the government can prove it has a compelling interest. Supporters said it is closely modeled on a federal religious freedom law passed in 1993, and it received overwhelming support in the state Senate earlier this month.

Opponents say the national push is tied to a possible U.S. Supreme Court ruling this year legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

People gathered outside the small Capitol’s basement room for more than an hour before the hearing began. Two overflow rooms showed a video feed.

State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, said similar laws in other states haven’t been used to successfully defend discrimination. He cited one example for passage of the bill: college students being prevented from using state facilities after administrators classified a religious foot-washing ceremony as hazing.

“This is not a hypothetical or an abstraction,” he said. “It is something very clear and affecting Georgians today.”

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said the students in that example got a fair result in court and questioned why another law is needed.

“I cannot find any reason any of these protections in Georgia law have not been satisfactory and sufficient to protect families to sustain or carry out their religious belief,” she said.

Former attorney general Mike Bowers who once defended the state’s anti-sodomy law was among the bill’s opponents.

“You’re going to create far more potential litigation because you’ve got more legal questions arising,” Bowers said, calling the bill “an unmitigated disaster.” Bowers has said he analyzed the bill at the request of LGBT rights group Georgia Equality.

Republican Rep. Barry Fleming of Harlem, who earlier called the proposal “the most important bill” he’ll vote on, criticized Bowers and other opponents for not having examples of negative effects in other states.

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