Religious rights bill clears Georgia Senate committee

Opponents say religion bill could justify discrimination

Georgia senators revived a bill to increase legal protections for religion, a long-sought Republican goal that is opposed by gay rights advocates who say it could lead to discrimination.

The proposal passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a partisan vote Thursday, with six Republicans in favor and three Democrats against. Senate Bill 180 could receive a vote in the full Senate next week.

The bill would limit the government’s ability to pass or enforce laws that conflict with religious beliefs.

Since then-Republican Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a previous religious rights bill in 2016, legislation has routinely been introduced in the Republican-majority Senate.

This year’s bill, which was introduced last year but didn’t receive a hearing until Thursday, arrived just in time for the General Assembly’s self-imposed deadline for bills to pass either the House or the Senate.

“This is not about causing any discrimination,” Mike Griffin, who represents the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, told the committee. “It protects people of faith from government intrusion. It restores the original intent of what the First Amendment meant.”

Several religious leaders and gay Georgians said a new law could be used by religious organizations and businesses to deny them service.

The bill “claims to protect religious freedom, but has at times been weaponized to justify discrimination,” said the Rev. Matt O’Rear of St Luke Lutheran Church in Atlanta.

“As a church leader, I’ve witnessed the harm of exclusionary interpretations of religious doctrines ... within the LGBT community and other marginalized communities,” said O’Rear, a married gay man.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Ed Setzler, said religious people need protections from state and local governments. He cited a Native American boy in Kansas whose school’s dress code required him to cut his hair and a Muslim woman who sued because she wasn’t allowed to wear a veil in her Florida driver’s license photo.

“There was a lot of histrionics and claims about what this bill does and doesn’t do,” said Setzler, a Republican from Acworth. “Governmental interests can be accomplished, but they’re done in ways that the right of the individual can be accommodated in every way possible.”

Thirty-four other states and the federal government already have religious rights laws, he said.

The proposal is being promoted by conservative Christian organizations that have opposed working with gay couples based on their beliefs.

For example, Christian-run adoption agencies have objected to adoptions by gay couples, and the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 ruled in favor of a Colorado bakery that refused to design a custom wedding cake for a gay couple.

If the bill advances, its supporters hope it would satisfy Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s criteria from his 2018 campaign that he would only sign a “mirror image” of the federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act passed in 1993 and apply it to state law.

Setzler’s bill resembles the federal law, but Democrats pointed out that Georgia’s version lacks the federal law’s wording that reinforces the First Amendment’s prohibition of government favoritism to religion.