Ralston: 'Pastor protection act' a necessity

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said Monday that he wants to “reassure” Georgia clergy that the state will protect them should they decide not to perform same-sex weddings.

Ralston, in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said his proposed “Pastor Protection Act,” will make that clear.

“In Georgia we’re going to come down clearly on the side of the separation of church and state and as long as you have constitutional scholars debating among themselves whether this is covered then I think we need to remove all uncertainty and all doubt.”

Ralston unveiled his proposal to fellow House Republicans at a caucus retreat on Saturday in Jekyll Island. He also told Gov. Nathan Deal about his plan, which Ralston plans to introduce when lawmakers return to session in January. He said the bill will be sponsored by Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville.

A working draft of the proposal says:

“No minister of the gospel or cleric or religious practitioner ordained or authorized to solemnize marriages according to the usages of the denomination, when acting in his or her official religious capacity, shall be required to solemnize any marriage in violation of his or her right to free exercise of religion.”

While Ralston told the AJC there is debate among constitutional scholars about whether the First Amendment will continue to provide clergy protections against performing same-sex weddings in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized those marriages, he could not immediately point to an example.

The fear among many who oppose same-sex marriage or worry that its legalization will lead to churches being forced to participate largely centers around the potential loss of federal exemptions. In other words, they remain concerned that a church that refuses to allow a same-sex couple to get married in its sanctuary could see the IRS force it to pay taxes.

But University of Georgia constitutional scholar Anthony Michael Kreis, an expert in marriage quality law, said nothing the Supreme Court did will undermine churches’ constitutional protections.

Still, Ralston said, “I know there’s enough unease and uncertainty among the clergy, among the faith community, that I think it’s important that we remove that in Georgia.”