The Georgia Legislature over the course of a few hours Wednesday unveiled changes to a controversial “religious liberty” bill and gave it final passage, setting off a collision course with corporate leaders and gay rights advocates over charges that it would legalize discrimination in Georgia.
House Bill 757 now goes to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature to become law, a culmination of two years of debate, attacks, counter-attacks and emotional speeches from both supporters and opponents.
When introduced early this year, the bill originally promised pastors they could not be forced to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony. The Senate, however, added language last month that would have allowed faith-based organizations and individuals to opt out of serving couples — gay or straight — or following anti-discrimination requirements if they cited a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction regarding marriage.
The changes unveiled Wednesday made more changes after both Gov. Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, objected to the Senate version. While the bill still says no pastor can be forced to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony, it adds language that says no individual can be forced to attend one.
The bill would protect faith-based organizations from having to rent or allow its facility to be used for an event it finds “objectionable.”
These organizations, which include churches, religious schools or associations, would not be required to provide social, educational or charitable services “that violate such faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious belief.” However, the amendment says government can enforce the terms of a grant, contract or other agreement.
Faith-based organizations also could not be forced to hire or retain an employee whose “religious beliefs or practices or lack of either are not in accord with the faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious belief.”
Finally, it includes much of the language found federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which requires government to prove a “compelling governmental interest” before it interferes with a person’s exercise of religion.
However, it adds that it cannot be used to allow “discrimination on any grounds prohibited by federal or state law.”
Leaders of the 1.3 million-member Georgia Baptist Mission Board have led the effort for the past two years, calling on lawmakers to pass bills they said would protect religious viewpoints and prevent discrimination against religious groups. This year, for the first time, they explicitly linked the effort to same-sex marriage after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that state prohibitions on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.
Georgia’s powerful corporate community and companies including Microsoft, Google, Coca-Cola and Home Depot, have opposed the bill and have said the state would see a crippling economic impact from such a bill becoming law, under threats of boycotts from both business convention organizers and national LGBT advocates.
Studies by the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau have suggested a negative economic impact of $1 billion to $2 billion if national groups begin boycotting Georgia or canceling conventions and events based on perceived discriminatory efforts by the state.
The Metro Chamber late on Wednesday said they oppose the revised version of HB 757.
“We recognize this is a very challenging issue and that there was meaningful effort to address the balance between deeply held views and the interests and rights of others. This legislation is in conflict with the values of diversity and inclusion that Georgians hold dear and could erode Georgia’s hard-earned status as the No. 1 state for business – and would harm our ability to create and keep jobs that Georgia families depend upon,” the business group said in a statement.
It continued: “We agree with Governor Deal that allowing discrimination isn’t a proper reflection of who we are and echo his call for unity and inclusion. We deeply appreciate the Governor’s deliberation on this very important issue, and respectfully ask him to maintain this view while considering this legislation.”