Ralston: same-sex marriages make pastor protection law necessary

Georgia 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,” Ralston said, “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 Saturday on 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 state 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.”

Ralston’s plan would apply only to clergy, not to elected or appointed judges and magistrates. While Georgia has largely avoided problems that have plagued neighboring Alabama, where judges and elected officials have vowed to fight to block same-sex weddings, there have been isolated instances of judges showing their disapproval.

Media outlets in the past month have reported that a probate judge in Troup County and a Dodge County magistrate have decided to stop performing weddings completely, rather than marry same-sex couples. State law does not require judges to perform marriage ceremonies.

While Ralston told the AJC that 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 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 on 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 Internal Revenue Service force it to pay taxes.

But University of Georgia constitutional scholar Anthony Michael Kreis, an expert in marriage equality law, said nothing the Supreme Court did in its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges 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.”

Ralston said his proposal is separate from the lingering debate over a larger “religious liberty” bill. That bill, sponsored by state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, passed the Senate this year and is sitting in a House committee.

McKoon’s bill, Senate Bill 129, has been at the center of some of the fiercest debates at the Capitol since 2014, when supporters first tried to get a “religious liberty” bill passed in Georgia.

Supporters of SB 129 see it as an extra layer of protection against government intrusion on religious beliefs, while critics say it would enable businesses to discriminate against gay customers.

“I don’t’ know what the future of that bill is going to be,” Ralston said. But it’s a separate discussion. What I’m trying to do deals with separation of church and state.”

McKoon praised Ralston for the idea and said it should go further.

“Of course, we must still address the threats to tax-exempt status of religious institutions, accreditation of religious schools and operation of religious adoption agencies as well as giving every House member the opportunity to have an up-or-down vote on Senate Bill 129 as passed the Senate,” he said. “I look forward to working with all of my colleagues in the months ahead to ensure that all people of faith, including business owners, associations and individuals in our state, can be assured their right of conscience will not be diminished in any way.”