Religious opt-out for gay marriage opponents gets hearing in Georgia

A little publicized hearing Monday on legislation that would allow religious non-profit organizations to opt-out of serving gay couples or follow government anti-discrimination requirements has stoked the fears of opponents that Senate Bill 284 may be on a fast track in Georgia.

No vote was taken on the bill by the powerful Senate Rules Committee — which decides whether bills receive floor votes in the chamber — but in a brief, 15-minute discussion on its merits, several of the committee’s majority Republican members said they saw little that worried them.

“It’s preventing discrimination against the religious community,” said state Sen. Hunter Hill, R-Smyrna.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus, has dubbed it the First Amendment Defense Act of Georgia, saying he wants to protect groups such faith-based adoption agencies or local youth group who he said could have their tax exemption status, education scholarship or school accreditation status challenged because of their views on gay marriage.

Kirk said the bill could also protect public employees such as in the instance such as former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, who lost his job last year over actions related to a self-published religious book that many construed as anti-gay.

However, he said the bill would not allow public employees or elected officials such as Georgia probate court employees to refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses if it offends their faith. “It does not relieve them in performing their duties,” said Kirk, who modeled the bill on a proposal in Congress that would do much of the same thing on a federal level.

Notice for the late morning hearing was posted only hours before it started, leaving many interested in the bill scrambling. In addition to Kirk, only one person testified: former Atlanta City Council president Cathy Woolard, who now lobbies for the nonpartisan LGBT advocacy group Georgia Equality.

“This bill creates a law for a single point of view, and that’s unconstitutional,” Woolard told the committee. “It would be allowing organizations that receive federal or state funding to discriminate. It would repeal some laws at the local level,” she said, a reference to cities including Atlanta that prohibit discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity.

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