Georgia House passes ‘Pastor Protection Act’

Clergy could not be forced to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony under legislation unanimously approved Thursday in the Georgia House.

House Bill 757, known as the Pastor Protection Act, sponsored by state Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, passed 161-0 and now goes to the Senate. The bill, supported by House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, passed easily despite several Scripture-tinged speeches by lawmakers hoping it would do more.

“It’s a protection that we need,” said state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth. “I want to ask as a body, aren’t we all committed to passing this bill with a strong unanimous vote and going forward and doing more?”

Setzler has sponsored House Bill 837, one of at least seven “religious liberty” bills pending before the General Assembly.

State Rep. Kevin Cooke, R-Carrollton, said HB 757 doesn’t go far enough. The bill, he said, “doesn’t protect all Georgians from their own government with regard to their religious beliefs.

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“We have multiple bills that will accomplish this end,” Cooke said, “and I would encourage this body to take action on those measures.”

Cooke later did not vote one way or another on the bill. But he said, as an example, while the bill would protect a preacher from having to perform a same-sex ceremony, he has a friend who has a pastor who also owns a private business that hosts wedding ceremonies. That friend, Cooke said, could still be forced to rent his space to a same-sex couple.

A full religious liberty bill would prevent that, he said.

“He is still left vulnerable, and this bill doesn’t address that,” Cooke said. “Through the bills we have out there, to include (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act), that would protect many others in all aspects of life.”

Opponents of religious liberty bills could see Cooke’s statement as justification for their concern that such legislation is really an effort to allow private businesses to discriminate against gay Georgians. Sponsors of several of the bills, however, have said they are merely attempts to stop government from infringing on religious Georgians’ practice of their fath.

Efforts to reach Cooke later were not successful. He likely was referring to Senate Bill 284, by state Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus, which would allow religious nonprofits to refuse service to anyone they disagree with.

Ralston pushed back on criticisms from fellow Republicans that HB 757 does not go far enough. Other lawmakers are proposing more extensive religious liberty bills. The House speaker said he wanted to find common ground.

“I sometimes find myself worrying that the idea of focusing on that which unites us instead of that which divides us is becoming old-fashioned and dated,” Ralston said. “And I think that’s regrettable.”

The bill, he said, addresses real concerns of voters who worried that the legalization of same-sex marriage would have adverse effects.

“This bill shows that starting where there is agreement and mutual trust can be much more productive rather than spinning into what seems to be a bottomless chasm,” he said.

Ralston mentioned no one by name, but he could have been referring to state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, who has sponsored Senate Bill 129, which is the religious liberty bill that has received the most attention. McKoon on Thursday railed against HB 757 on the floor of the Senate and called it the “politician protection act” because it would have no effect.

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