Georgia Senate panel merges ‘religious liberty’ bills, reshapes debate

The Georgia Senate on Tuesday upped the volume on a contentious debate over religious freedom and gay rights when its most powerful committee merged two high-profile "religious liberty" bills into a single piece of legislation.

The move by the Senate Rules Committee to combine House Bill 757, known as the Pastor Protection Act, with Senate Bill 284, dubbed the First Amendment Defense Act of Georgia, came as the Senate's Republican leaders trumpeted what they called a compromise over religious liberty efforts that have roiled the Capitol for more than two years.

Conservatives cheered the move, which they said recognized their faith-based objections to same-sex marriage. "Our faith is not a hobby," said Jane Robbins, with the American Principles Project. "This is simply a tolerance bill. You live your life by your faith or lack of faith. I live my life based on my faith."

But despite insistence by Senate President Pro Tem David Shafer, R-Duluth, and others that the state's business leaders backed the move and would support what's now a new version of HB 757, but business leaders were among those who raised new questions about the effect of the combined bill. Advocates against domestic violence also said the new bill could endanger grants funded by federal agencies that prohibit denial of service based on sexual orientation.

Other experts said it was so broadly written, it could lead to the voiding of nondiscrimination policies of the state’s major corporations.

Said constitutional attorney Gerry Weber, “Large companies that have nondiscrimination policies in the state of Georgia will not be able to enforce those nondiscrimination policies when an employee asserts that their sincerely held religious belief allows them to discriminate based on marriage status, based on sexual orientation, based on whether somebody is single or divorced.”

The combined legislation under HB 757 would enable faith-based organizations and individuals to opt out of serving couples — gay or straight — or follow anti-discrimination requirements if they cite a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction regarding 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 adoption. Those organizations would also not be required to register as a nonprofit, although they would have to state a religious belief or purpose in their governing documents or mission statements.

Additionally, the bill states clergy could 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.

Corporate interests at the Capitol acknowledged Tuesday that they had offered language to try to improve the bill, with changes made to the bill that helped “move it in the right direction,” according to representatives of both the Georgia Chamber and the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

However, both groups stopped notably short of endorsement.

“There are still unresolved issues that must be addressed in this bill, in addition to the underlying concerns that remain about the potential adverse ramifications for Georgia’s economy,” the Georgia Chamber’s David Raynor and Metro Atlanta Chamber’s Katie Kirkpatrick said in a joint statement.

Those ramifications, according to studies by the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, could mean 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.

Other business groups said they had similar concerns. “Despite the best efforts of a coalition of business groups, the latest version of this bill has unintended consequences that are harmful to our employees as well as our business,” said Jim Sprouse, the executive director of the Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association. “We can do better.”

The Rules Committee now has the power to place the bill on the Senate floor for a vote, something that could happen by week’s end if members decide to act quickly.