Ralston wants 'pastor protection' bill to have priority

House Speaker David Ralston said Friday he plans to ask that a “preacher protection” bill he is backing be given priority over other “religious liberty” bills being pushed in this year’s General Assembly session.

The preacher protection act would write into state law that a religious leader could not be compelled to perform a same sex-marriage.

Ralston said it’s less divisive than some of the other measures and accomplishes the goal of showing that Georgia strongly believes in the separation of church and state.

The best known of the other bills on the topic is Senate Bill 129, which is back this year after sparking one of the most fiery debates of last year's legislative session. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, says the intent is to protect people of any religion from interference. Opponents say it would sanction discrimination, particularly against gays and lesbians.

This week, legislation was introduced that could allow florists, bakers and any other private business owner to refuse service to gay couples getting married in Georgia.

House Bill 756 would allow business owners to cite religious beliefs in refusing goods or services for a "matrimonial ceremony" — a blunt assessment of conservatives' outrage after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last June that state prohibitions on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.

The sponsor of HB 756 is state Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, the man also sponsoring the pastor protection bill. Ralston first presented the idea of the pastor protection bill to House Republicans shortly after the Supreme Court ruling last summer.