Gay marriage opponents win ‘religious liberty’ vote in Georgia Senate

Staff writer Janel Davis contributed to this article.

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Opponents of same-sex marriage won a major victory Friday when the Georgia Senate approved a measure allowing them to cite religious beliefs in denying services to gay couples.

The victory is not final, but it gives House Bill 757 momentum as it swings back to the House next week for another look. A three-hour debate preceded its passage, but the outcome was never in question. Republicans in the chamber hold a supermajority and voted en masse to support it.

"I want you to understand, this legislation is about equal protection and not discrimination," said the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus. "It only impacts the government's interaction with faith-based organizations or a person who holds faith-based, sincerely held beliefs as it relates to marriage."

The Metro Atlanta Chamber, which had been trying to work with Senate leaders to change the bill, said Friday that it opposed the measure that passed. So, too, did the Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association, as well as individual corporate giants including Hilton Worldwide, Marriott and InterContinental Hotels Group. All said the bill would have a chilling effect on Georgia’s reputation and economy, and they warned that public perception about the bill could lead to conference cancellations and boycotts.

“The current version of HB 757 may allow discrimination against our guests and employees and is in direct contradiction to our company’s anti-discrimination policy and culture of hospitality,” the InterContinental Hotels Group’s Paul Snyder said in a letter to senators and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the chamber’s president. “If passed, it will send a message to our customers, employees and visitors from across the nation that Georgia is closed for business to a specific class of people.”

HB 757 would enable faith-based organizations and individuals to opt out of serving couples — gay or straight — or following anti-discrimination requirements if they cite a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction regarding marriage.

Religious conservatives have cheered the measure as a compromise that recognizes their faith-based objections to gay marriage. Many in Georgia’s business community, however, have expressed concerns over the bill and the potential harm it may cause if it causes groups to boycott the state. LGBT advocates said the bill legalizes discrimination.

Supporters, however, said those concerns were misplaced.

“It in no way interferes with our world-class tourism or business communities whatsoever,” Cagle said. “We are simply ensuring that no Georgian suffers at the hand of our government for their view on marriage.”

The bill would bar state and local governments from taking any “discriminatory action” to punish those beliefs, specifically over convictions that marriage should be between a man and a woman or that sexual relations between two people are properly reserved to such a marriage.

It would protect government grants and contracts, among other things, held by faith-based organizations such as those that receive money to aid in adoptions. Those organizations would have to state a religious belief or purpose in their governing documents or mission statements.

Clergy could also not be forced to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony.

The bill would not, however, allow public employees or elected officials such as Georgia probate court employees to refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses if that offends their faith.

Critics of the effort have questioned whether the new bill could endanger grants funded by federal agencies that prohibit denial of service based on sexual orientation. They have also said it was so broadly written, it could lead to the voiding of nondiscrimination policies of the state’s major corporations.

Kirk and other Republican leaders in the Senate said none of those fears were true. Federal law, they said, superseded state law and would govern grants that included federal money. They also said they had narrowed the bill to only protect religious organizations that state officials felt did good work. They said the bill would have no major impact on major businesses.

But state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, said businesses such as Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby could discriminate under the bill because they both have religious beliefs written into their mission statements.

During debate, others spoke of their personal experiences of discrimination in the South. Barred when she was young from her town's local department store because she was black, state Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, spoke of her realization that the store itself wasn't special so much as the power one group of people held over another.

“It was about the color of my skin,” said Butler, who rarely speaks on the floor. The bill, she said, reminded her that no American should have to spend years seeking equality under the law. “You know I know what discrimination means,” she said. “I refuse to believe the nature of our state is so dark.”

But state Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, said many Georgians do not support same-sex marriage for religious reasons and want to live up to those beliefs without fear of reprisal.

Opponents of the bill, he said, “fear radical Christian pastors are going to speak against them. They just don’t want them to be out there talking about their religious beliefs.”

But he added: “I’ve got two brothers who are pastors. My brothers are afraid they are going to be persecuted. That’s a legitimate fear they have, too.”

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 began boycotting Georgia or canceling conventions and events based on perceived discriminatory efforts by the state.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, was noncommittal about the bill Friday, although corporate interests at the Capitol are lobbying for changes to the bill they feel would address at least some of the critics' concerns. The session is more than halfway over, although there is no immediate deadline for the House to act.

“I’m a little troubled with the posture it’s in,” Ralston said, “but we’ll wait and see.”