Sens. Kirk and Fort Wrap Up Religious Liberty Debate Tour in Tifton

Senators Greg Kirk and Vincent Fort wrapped up their series of debates over religious liberty Thursday night with an appearance in Tifton. While the various religious liberty bills from the 2016 session were brought up, the goal of the debates, according to Senator Kirk, was to offer each side of the debate an opportunity to express their point of view on where the line should be drawn between the right of someone to freely exercise their religious beliefs and the right of someone else to be free from discrimination.

The debate began with Senator Kirk explaining that his bill, the First Amendment Defense Act, was a response to the 2015 Obergefell decision by the Supreme Court sanctioning same-sex marriage. Its purpose was to allow those who maintain that marriage is between a man and a woman to express their belief without having to worry about government action against them. As written, Kirk said, the measure would not only protect a faith based adoption agency from being forced to complete an adoption for a same-sex couple, it would also protect a hypothetical same-sex adoption agency from being required to let heterosexual couples adopt from it.

Senator Fort pointed out that the 501-C3 corporations that the First Amendment Defense Act protects from government intervention are non profits who are subsidized by government by virtue of not having to pay taxes. As such, the government would be complicit in discrimination caused by a faith based organization’s refusal to serve a same-sex couple. The FADA, according to Fort, would have permitted a license to discriminate in Georgia.

Sen. Fort speculated that a so-called bathroom bill that would require transgender individuals to use facilities corresponding to their birth sex would be introduced in Georgia next year. From there, the discussion turned to North Carolina, where the passage of House Bill 2 led to the cancellation of the NBA All Star Game, several collegiate basketball tournaments, and several corporation expansions. Sen. Kirk maintained that North Carolina had added more jobs during the first half of 2016 than Georgia had, and that the Tar Heel State economy was doing well. Sen. Fort responded by citing the millions of dollars lost because conventions and the tournaments moved out. He also predicted a boycott of Georgia should a similar bill pass here.

And so the debate went, rehashing some of the same arguments and talking points as were heard in the Gold Dome this spring. While Kirk maintained that homosexuality is a sin, Fort responded that that shouldn’t be an excuse for discrimination.

In addition to addressing the issues of religious liberty and civil rights, the pair expressed their opinion on the Opportunity School District constitutional amendment voters will decide in November. Senator Fort was against it, saying he preferred a Democratic alternative that would provide for community schools. Senator Kirk Said he ended up supporting the measure after coming to the conclusion that something had to be done to turn around failing schools. Another question on which presidental candidate each was supporting brought no surprises either: Kirk, who originally supported Ted Cruz, will vote for Donald Trump, while Fort, an early Bernie Sanders supporter, will vote for Hillary Clinton.

It’s an open question as to whether either side got any closer to understanding the other side’s position, or whether any of those attending the debates or watching a livestream or recording came away more educated about the issue, two of Senator Kirk’s goals for having the debates to begin with. Senator Kirk decided shortly after the end of the 2016 session that he wasn’t going to carry a religious liberty bill. When we spoke to him earlier in the week, he said he intends to make rural healthcare his focus during 2017. Instead, Kirk hopes that the discussion about religious liberty and civil rights during the debates will continue among Georgians, and that ultimately, a policy of live and let live will settle the issue.

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