Why the ‘religious liberty’ senator condemned the House member’s Klan comment

The loudest, most forceful condemnation of State Rep. Tommy Benton‘s recent comments about the Klan and slavery came from one of the most culturally conservative voices under the Gold Dome.

On Monday, Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, slammed Benton from the Senate floor in an unconditional terms. McKoon called Benton’s comments “contemptible and wrong” and worthy of “the strongest possible condemnation.”

McKoon is not a stranger to controversial positions.

March 26, 2015 - Atlanta - Senator Joshua McKoon, sponsor of SB 129, the religious liberty bill, uses his point of privilege in this morning's senate session to promote his bill saying that in spite of the threatened loss of millions of dollars in convention business, having the protections are worth it. The senate passed a number of bills, including HB 225, the Uber bill; and HB 397, which revises the state Soil and Conservation Commission to the concern of farmers and environmentalists. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Sen. Josh McKoon, sponsor of the controversial “religious liberty” bill, was one of the few voices who spoke out publicly against Rep. Tommy Benton’s comments on the KKK. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

He is the sponsor of one of the so-called religious liberty bills, which would require the government to show a compelling need before overriding an individual’s religious objections. The bill has raised fears that it would allow individuals to freely discriminate against gays and lesbians by claiming a religious exemption.

McKoon also has proposed more restrictive regulation of undocumented immigrants. McKoon said his efforts get him accused of hating immigrants and homosexuals when he sees himself as standing up for immigration enforcement and religious freedom.

“I think that 99 percent of the time Republicans who get criticized by people on the left will get criticized for ‘hateful attitudes,’” he said.

031715 ATLANTA: Participants hold signs during a rally at the Capitol against SB 129, the "license to discriminate" legislation pushed by Sen. Josh McKoon and Rep. Sam Teasley on Tuesday, March 17, 2015, at Liberty Plaza in Atlanta. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Religious liberty legislation has spawned protests from activists on the political left and vocal concern from the business community. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

In a story last week about legislation Benton introduced to require the state to observe Robert E. Lee’s birthday and Confederate Memorial Day and to amend the state constitution to preserve the Stone Mountain carving, Benton remarked that the Ku Klux Klan “made a lot of people straighten up.”

Benton claimed the notoriously racist organization “was not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order,” he said.

Other groups, including the liberal activist group Better Georgia, spoke out against Benton, but McKoon was the only Georgia legislator to directly criticize the five-term Republican in open session.

McKoon said he has a “certain obligation” to speak up when he observes someone in his party acting in an objectively hateful way.

“When he exhibits attitudes that cannot be characterized by any other way than patently racist it makes it harder for all of us to engage in a meaningful, honest and civil debate. That makes me very angry,” he said.

McKoon said he also was standing up for his colleague, Sen. Vincent Fort, with whom he shares virtually no common political ground. Benton accused Fort, D-Atlanta, of “cultural terrorism” and compared him to ISIS . McKoon called the comments “wildly inappropriate” and said they contribute to “this cesspool” of vitriolic political debate.

“Obviously, I disagree with Vincent Fort on 90 percent of things, but that doesn’t make him my enemy. It doesn’t make him an evil human being,” he said.

Benton has withdrawn his name from the legislation, but did not apologize for his statements. Read more about the action in the House here.


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