AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

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.

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.

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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Joyner’s column, AJC Watchdog, investigates topics in your community and Georgia.