WASHINGTON — Former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers, a man with a long history of opposing the rights of LGBT people, will be siding with the LGBT community this week in announcing his opposition to religious liberty legislation pending in the state legislature that he calls "deeply troubling."
Modeled in part on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) but described as providing a "license to discriminate" by opponents because of their broad applicability outside of government, legislation of this type has been introduced in several states over the past year, including in the last session of Georgia's legislature.
"The obvious unstated purpose of the proposed RFRA is to authorize discrimination against disfavored groups," Bowers, who was attorney general in the state for 16 years, has determined of the Georgia legislation. A portion of his analysis — concluding that the legislation's "potential intended and unintended consequences are alarming" — was shared with BuzzFeed News on Sunday.
Those working with Bowers on the issue told BuzzFeed News that he is expected to hold a news conference discussing his analysis of the legislation at the Capitol on Tuesday. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Saturday on Bowers' plan to oppose the legislation, noting that he had been hired by Georgia Equality to do the analysis of the legislation.
Bowers is perhaps best known nationally for opposing LGBT advocates' aims, however, having defended the state's sodomy law in the Supreme Court case that bears his name, Bowers v. Hardwick.
The 1986 decision upholding the state's sodomy law was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2003, but by then, Bowers was out of office — having unsuccessfully run for governor in 1997. Before then, however, he had a second major run-in with the LGBT community, rescinding a job offer in the Attorney General's Office to Robin Shahar after he found out that she planned to have a same-sex commitment ceremony with her then-partner. Bowers won a court challenge that Shahar brought against him for the action.
The scope of Bowers' newly announced views — and to what extent he would discuss or announce a reversal of his past positions — was not immediately clear.
Bowers has, though, determined that the RFRA legislation would provide an "excuse to practice invidious discrimination," noting the suspect timing of the legislation: "The timing of Georgia's legislation — and similar legislation in other states — coincides with the rapid legalization of gay marriage across the country, the United States Supreme Court's 2013 decision striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and the 2014 Supreme Court ruling that religious freedom of expression excused compliance with mandatory coverage for contraception in employee health insurance programs."
Bowers also has concluded that "if enacted, the proposed [measures] will permit everyone to become a law unto themselves in terms of deciding what laws they will or will not obey, based on whatever religious tenets they may profess or create at any given time."
Additionally, he has concluded that, if passed into law, "the proposed RFRA is so full of uncertainties that those enforcing and administering it will take decades to sort out the dilemmas it creates." Specifically, Bowers has found that "[i]t has been decades since the Georgia Supreme Court issued a major ruling interpreting the free exercise law" — which means that Georgia courts, Bowers concludes, "could interpret HB 218 in a way that deviates from the federal courts."
Among the more striking comments from Bowers is his conclusion that the measures could be used to "justify putting hoods back on the Ku Klux Klan." The reason, he details, is because people could use the religious exemption that the proposed measures would provide as exemptions to the Anti-Mask Act — an attempt to reduce the KKK's presence in the state, which specifically excluded a religious exemption when it was passed.
Chris Geidner is the legal editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. In 2014, Geidner won the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association award for journalist of the year.
Contact Chris Geidner at email@example.com.
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