The Georgia Senate on Friday passed a version of the Pastor Protection Act – moving the bill a step closer to Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk.
Controversy has surrounded the bill, which unanimously passed the Georgia House as House Bill 757 on Feb. 11. The bill puts into statute that pastors and churches cannot be required to provide services that violate their religious beliefs.
The Senate version brought up the same accusations from opponents that the bill is a thinly disguised effort to discriminate against gay couples. The Senate effort also, however, elicited some criticism that its differences from the House version weaken the bill’s purpose.
The bill – also known as the First Amendment Defense Act of Georgia – passed the Georgia Senate by a vote of 38-14 on Friday afternoon.
Area pastors have offered a range of opinions on the bill. Daniel Ausbun, pastor of First Baptist Church in Moreland, and Michael McFarlin, pastor of Luthersville United Methodist Church and Allen-Lee United Methodist Church in Lone Oak, both expressed support for the House bill last week.
"This sounds like a good and necessary thing that would protect pastors against legal action for refusal to perform marriages, rites or administer sacraments against their religious beliefs," McFarlin said.
Dr. Joel Richardson, pastor of Central Baptist Church, had a different viewpoint. “I think the whole effort that is coming from the right on this,” he said, describing the bill as “just a smokescreen to find some way to ‘legally’ discriminate against gay and lesbian citizens.”
Before laws like HB 757 were proposed, “ministers have always had the right to determine who they would marry or not,” Richardson said. “It has always been our choice – based on religious conviction and common sense. No one could then or now force us to marry someone against our better judgement.”
Leigh Campbell-Taylor, associate pastor at Newnan Presbyterian Church, pointed out the Presbyterian Church – USA, the denominational body with which she and Newnan Presbyterian are affiliated, "has always been clear in saying that PC(USA) pastors are not required to preside at the wedding of any particular couple.
The Senate Rules committee on Tuesday added that language to the House version of the bill. That action combines two of the eight bills introduced this year seeking legal exemptions for opponents of same-sex marriage after the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling effectively legalized the unions.
The bill protecting pastors, however, received little opposition on its way to a House vote. Gay rights advocates though, harshly criticized the broader Senate bill, shielding adoption agencies, schools and other organizations from penalty for opposing same-sex marriage, according to the Associated Press.
Gay rights advocates condemned the bill as dangerous for same-sex couples, while Senate Democrats warned it could prompt boycotts of Georgia companies and allow refusal of service to unmarried couples or single parents.
Georgia's business community also remains leery of any bill that could prompt boycott threats like Indiana received in 2015 following passage of a different religious measure, according to the AP. In a joint statement Tuesday, officials with the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce said they worked with senators to "help improve the bill."
"There are still unresolved issues that must be addressed in this bill in addition to the underlying concerns that remain about the potential adverse ramifications for Georgia's economy, however these changes help move the bill in the right direction," the statement said.
Senate Republicans said during Tuesday's hearing that the measure would protect any view of legal marriage, including same-sex marriage. The bill goes on to specifically state those views may include "the belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a union." No other opinion of marriage is included in the bill's language.
Gerry Weber, an attorney who handles constitutional law cases, told the AP the bill could be used in court by employees of private businesses defending actions based on religious belief, such as a hospital employee who refuses visitation time for a same-sex couple.
"You have huge companies in this state that have nondiscrimination policies to encourage employees to come to the state," Weber said. "This legislation will allow any individual employee who claims a religious basis for discriminating to do so without being subject to the company's own policy."
State Sen. Greg Kirk, an Americus Republican who first proposed the exemption for faith organizations as a separate bill called the First Amendment Defense Act, said the combined measure is "very much needed." He told the AP the bill would not protect government employees who refuse to perform required duties, including clerks who issue marriage licenses.
"I would hate to see all the faith-based adoption agencies shut down because most of their sponsoring organizations continue to hold a different interpretation of marriage than the Supreme Court," said State Sen. David Shafer.
The Human Rights Campaign – the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil rights organization – and Georgia Equality, the statewide LGBT advocacy organization, issues a joint press release immediately after Friday’s vote.
HRC and Georgia Equality called on House leadership and Deal to put a stop to HB 757. Ianthe Metzger of HRC said the bill “goes far beyond protecting the right to practice one’s religion and would instead put LGBT people – couples, single parents and unmarried couples – at risk for discrimination.”
"HB 757 is a shameful and irresponsible bill that would create broad loopholes and put LGBT Georgians in real danger of discrimination,” said HRC President Chad Griffin. “The freedom to practice one’s religion is a core American value, and that’s exactly why it’s protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
Griffin described as “so disingenuous” any attempt to claim bills like HB 757 are “anything other than an attempt to license discrimination.”
Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said “legislative shenanigans” and “arcane legislative rules” were used to get the bill passed. “It’s outrageous that Senate leaders have not adhered to the standard practice of vetting legislation through traditional committee hearings with appropriate notice and public debate,” he said.
On Thursday, a Public Religion Research Institute found that a majority of Georgians support protecting LGBT people from discrimination in employment, housing and access to public services by a 66-28 margin.