A notable division among ‘religious liberty’ supporters

An overflow crowd fills the state Capitol rotunda as sacked Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran addresses supporters on Tuesday. Ben Gray, bgray@ajc.com

An overflow crowd fills the state Capitol rotunda as sacked Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran addresses supporters on Tuesday. Ben Gray, bgray@ajc.com

The dogs that don’t bark are sometimes louder than the ones that do.

There were some conspicuous absences from Tuesday’s show-stopping state Capitol rally for deposed Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran and two religious liberty bills: The leading legislative sponsors of the proposals.

Your daily jolt on politics from the AJC's Political insider blogState Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, who has yet to file his bill, was spotted at the margins of the statehouse event, but he had no speaking role in the hour-long affair. State Rep. Sam Teasley, R-Marietta, author of H.B. 29, sent word he had a conflicting event in the form of a long-planned meeting.

There are some underlying reasons why leading Republican sponsors might have been encouraged to keep their distance. First, it’s unclear — perhaps unlikely – that Teasley’s proposal would have offered any protection to Cochran, who has become the poster child for the legislation.

Cochran, you’ll recall, was fired after penning a book that contained anti-gay comments and other controversial statements. But because Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has framed Cochran’s termination as a personnel issue related to his failure to follow protocol, not his religious views, it’s harder for politicians to invoke his case in their drive.

The second is a reluctance to see the measures again tied to the issue of gay marriage, legalization of which is rapidly become a fait accompli across the nation. Speaker after speaker talked of biblical prohibitions on same-sex unions.

Chief among them, perhaps a bigger draw than Cochran, was Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and a fierce proponent of traditional marriage, who compared Cochran’s firing to last week’s massacre of Parisian journalists. From Perkins’ speech:

“Whether it’s a journalist in France satirically writing about religion or a fire chief in Atlanta, Ga., writing about the sacred teachings of his faith, the silencing of either is a threat to the freedoms of all.

“The naked truth is that the actions taken against the chief are designed to send a message that will silence Christians and in effect force them to check their faith at the door of public service.”

Bottom line: There is a sharp division among supporters of this year’s religious liberty bills. There are those who were at Tuesday’s rally, and those who believe that neutralizing opposition from business giants like Coke, Delta and Home Depot depends on convincing corporate leaders that the bills aren’t covert slaps at gay marriage – which could prompt some well-organized and damaging boycotts.

Kelvin Cochran doesn’t help them make that case.

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Which brings us to another Tuesday development on the religious liberty front.

Gov. Nathan Deal surprised many — including some Republican rank-and-file members — when he voiced his tacit support for the legislation. That set him at odds not only with the business community, but also House Speaker David Ralston and other establishment figures who have expressed concern about the proposals.

Consider this an olive branch of sorts from the governor to his right flank, which he’ll need to push through his top priorities: An increase in transportation funding and his proposed constitutional amendment that would permit the state to take over non-performing school systems.

We’re not the only ones drawing the connection between heavy lifts and religious liberty bills. State Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, said as much on Tuesday during a press conference of clergy opposed to the Teasley/McKoon legislation.

“Do not let House Bill 29 become a chip to garner some votes to pass important, significant legislation. That is my caution to my colleagues in leadership under the Gold Dome,” Orrock said.

The governor may be presenting Georgia business leaders with a dilemma: Passage of an increase in transportation funding could depend on passage of a religious liberty bill.

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The state of Georgia has a $58 million program that offers tax credits for private school scholarships. It is highly popular – and controversial.

Backers say it is an important step toward giving parents greater choice in where their children attend school. They also say it saves the state millions of dollars it would otherwise be spending educating the scholarship recipients in public schools.

Opponents say it provides a boost to private, often religion-affiliated schools while draining money from the public education system. Many of those who benefit would be going to private schools without the tax credits and scholarships, they say.

State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, wants to expand the program in a big way. Denis O’Hayer of WABE (90.1FM) asked House Speaker David Ralston about that. Click here for the audio, but here’s a portion of the exchange:

Ralston: “The truth of the matter is that the credit that we currently have in Georgia was exhausted on New Year’s Day this year. It was all taken, and there is no remaining pool there for the remainder of the year. I’m certainly open to looking at some modest and reasonable request along those lines. I don’t know what the magic number will be.”

O’Hayer: “I think his raise was to $250 million.”

Ralston: “That’s a fairly dramatic increase, I think, percentagewise, from where we are now. We may have to go back and have some further discussion on that.”

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In Washington, some of the most conservative U.S. House Republicans are plotting a new group to more forcefully challenge the GOP leadership. From the National Journal’s Daniel Newhauser:

House conservatives are plotting a mass exodus from the Republican Study Committee as soon as next week over simmering dissatisfaction with the group’s direction.

The members have been talking for weeks, and they met Monday night to formalize their plans to institutionalize a competing, invitation-only organization that they see as a real conservative caucus that can push Speaker John Boehner rightward. Once a bastion for the conservative movement, the RSC has strayed too far from its original mission and been co-opted by the same party leaders it is meant to exert pressure upon, the members believe.

The leaders of the push were folks such as Reps. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., and they were set to dine with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, last night to discuss their plans.

As far as we know, no members of the Georgia GOP delegation are signed up. New guys Barry Loudermilk of Cassville and Jody Hice of Monroe say they are weighing what clubs to join, though they need to act now before yearbook fills up.

As for those who have been around longer, Tom Graves of Ranger — who lost a race for RSC chairman in 2012 as the more conservative choice — said he is keeping his leadership role at RSC. “I typically like to try to influence from being a part of something,” he said, rather than breaking away.

Rob Woodall of Lawrenceville was the interim RSC chairman last year. Here’s what he had to say about the splinter group:

“I’m puzzled by this. This is a place where we vote and when we have elections and when you don’t get what you want, you saddle up again tomorrow and try to make it happen. You try to persuade your colleagues. As a conservative who is in a Republican majority but not a conservative majority, I will always be able to best represent the views of my constituents back home if I can amass with other conservatives.  So dividing us in any way, I fear has the potential to diminish conservative impact. …

“I have no interest in arguing amongst my colleagues about conservative issues and who’s the most conservative. What I know is we’re all more conservative than the United States Senate and the White House of the United States of America, so how can we – who are all more conservative than they are – get the most conservative work product to the president’s desk for him to sign into law. Those guys are all my friends and we’re going to, they came here to make a difference. I think we’ll find a way to make a difference together.”

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U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, is already making news for something other than not voting for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. For instance, he’s taking over former Rep. Allen West’s political action committee, the Guardian Fund. Some background from a press release:

Since its establishment in 2012, the Guardian Fund has assisted in the election of 28 candidates to office on the local, state and federal levels.  With its unique mission of supporting conservative veterans and minorities, the Guardian Fund acted as a true trailblazer for the Republican Party and has raised over $6 million dollars since inception.

Allen West served as Chairman of the Guardian Fund during the 2012 and 2014 election cycles. As of January 1st, he has relocated to Dallas, TX to become CEO of the National Center for Policy Analysis.

He’s also become a target of the satirical website The Onion:

Praising the bold new perspective he has introduced to Congress since being sworn in last week, sources said Monday that first-term representative Barry Loudermilk (R-GA) has already brought a host of fresh roadblocks to the table. “He’s coming in here with an outsider point of view and original obstacles that can help us really bring things to a standstill this session,” said seven-term representative Mike Rogers (R-AL)….

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U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., has introduced a FairTax bill to abolish the income tax and replace it with a national sales tax. Perdue campaigned on the issue and has made it one of his first legislative acts since being sworn in.

Perdue and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, are leading the effort in the Senate, while Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville, once again is leading the FairTax charge across the Capitol. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., announced his signature as an original co-sponsor, as well.

The issue has been out there for some time but remains a long way from gathering a critical mass of support.

Here’s what Perdue had to say in a news release:

“In order for America’s economy to thrive in today’s international economy, we must remain competitive. Instituting the FairTax will level the playing field and make America the best place in the world to do business. The FairTax is smart policy that will help protect hardworking Georgians and all American taxpayers.”

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Back at the state Capitol, one of the longest-serving lobbyists is also one of the most poorly paid. Neil Herring specializes in environmental issues. He also puts out a daily email summary of his activities, which can range from the insightful to the ribald.

An example of the latter: Though the new Liberty Plaza won’t be dedicated until Friday, Herring has already christened the two spheres at the north end as the “Testicles of Power.”

An example of the former is Herring’s notation of how the decision by House Republicans since 2005 to greatly restrict the ability of members to change legislation during floor debates:

The single most effective anti-democratic (small “d”) measure has to have been the practical end of the House floor amendment, which was the avenue for us fabled “little people” to get legislation. I can say with no shame, and certainly without regret, that everything we ever got during those years we got with House floor amendments, including a record three vetoes by Zeldar of the Hill People in a single session, an achievement I doubt I will ever see the likes of again…

Since then we have had to scrap and craft and force every damned thing we could get. No more strokes, no more carefully timed insertions, no more explorations of the precise meaning of the word “germane.” Now it is a matter of building, then holding together, bizarre coalitions of farthest right and farthest left to prevent the Chamberoids from getting the 91 House votes they must have to continue their unimpeded destruction of the state’s natural resources….”


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