Finding right balance of faith, freedom

I’m one of six children, all born and raised in Georgia. My brothers and sisters and I grew up loving the outdoors and attending church faithfully. Our family, like many in Macon in the 1960’s, was conservative and deeply religious.

That’s why when my oldest brother, Merwin, told us he was gay, it wasn’t an easy thing for us to accept or understand — at first. Our paradigms had been rocked. Here was a guy that had been in the ministry, and he was now saying he was gay! But we all eventually realized that Merwin was still our blood, still our brother, someone we loved dearly. I can’t imagine how difficult it had been for him to hide who he was nor the kind of courage it took to tell us something so deeply personal.

For me, this discussion over religious liberty and discrimination is as close to my heart as my brother. I have co-sponsored legislation in the past to protect my right, his right and your right to worship God faithfully with as little interference from government as possible. That’s a cornerstone of our society and a part of the very fabric of America.

While we may disagree on many things, as brothers do, we have tremendous love and respect for one another. Therefore, I will not vote for any bill being considered by the General Assembly that would make him feel unwelcome in Georgia. This state is just as much his home as it is mine.

When Speaker Ralston proposed the Pastor Protection Act last summer, I was proud that our party had a voice of reason. He understood that reaffirming the rights of our churches and our clergy didn’t mean doing so at the expense of other Georgia citizens. When Rep. Kevin Tanner introduced HB 757, it had thorough hearings in the House and was discussed through inclusive debate. It was amended along the way based on input from members of both parties. That’s why it passed the House unanimously.

I didn’t believe then nor do I believe now that the Pastor Protection Act was the end of the conversation. However, inserting the First Amendment Defense Act as the Senate did took a once-bipartisan bill and made it toxic. We’ve read in papers across the state and across the globe that people fear this bill will allow — even encourage — discrimination based on sexual orientation or marital status. We’ve heard from the business community, including major employers like Coca-Cola, Home Depot and Microsoft that if HB 757 is signed into law as amended by the Senate, they may have to stop investing in our state and hiring our citizens.

We must do everything we can to defend our First Amendment rights. An individual or business should be protected from being forced by their government to participate in any religious or marriage ceremony that violates their faith. But we must also do everything we can to make sure that no one feels like they are being discriminated against in this state, and in particular my brother, just because of their sexual orientation.

I still support the Pastor Protection Act as passed in the House. But I cannot support a bill that would allow businesses to deny service to my brother or someone he loves. I hope that my colleagues in the General Assembly will heed Governor Deal’s wise words and find a compromise that doesn’t make us choose between our faith and our family. We can find a solution that protects people of faith, and doesn’t discriminate against my gay brother.