Georgia lawmakers on Thursday approved a bill explicitly stating that religious officials can refuse to perform gay marriages, their first significant action on a variety of proposals creating legal exemptions for same-sex marriage opponents.
Supporters of the “Pastor Protection Act” acknowledge that religious leaders already have that protection under the U.S. Constitution, but argue it will reassure them following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling last year legalizing gay marriage.
The court’s decision has prompted at least eight bills that would create exemptions for opponents of the marriages in Georgia, one of more than 20 states where lawmakers have introduced such proposals.
“There’s pros and cons on both sides,” Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said.
The Georgia bill shielding religious officials moved quickly through the House with backing from the chamber’s top Republican, House Speaker David Ralston, and little resistance from gay-rights advocates and business leaders who have opposed broader bills.
“I hope that the passage … will ease the concerns that some have expressed that last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision would threaten the independence of places of worship and the actions of clergy,” said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, the leading LGBT rights advocacy group in the state. “I can relate to the fears of discrimination because the LGBT community is not currently protected by any nondiscrimination laws on a state or federal level.”
Some Republican lawmakers and evangelical groups criticized Ralston when he questioned the need for other measures, including versions of the federal “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which failed to pass last year.
Instead, Ralston floated the idea of a law specifically exempting religious leaders from performing weddings.
The bill passed by the House also allows religious institutions to refuse to rent their property for “objectionable” events.
Several conservative House members said the pastor bill didn’t go far enough, but all voted in favor of it.
The broader bills would limit government’s ability to infringe on religious beliefs without a compelling interest.
Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, is sponsoring one of the broader bills. He said the pastor bill should be the start of a fight for religious freedom.
“This is an important protection,” Setzler said. “But friends, we do have to do more. We were elected to protect the rights of all people.”
The bill now goes to the state Senate for review.
Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said, “There is an appetite for a genuine and sincere desire to protect the beliefs of all Georgians.”
Miller supported efforts to pass the restoration bill, modeled on a federal law of the same name passed in the 1990s, last year but said its delay was a sign that the democratic process worked.
Miller said that while he still supports the bill, he acknowledges that opposition from business groups and the tourism industry must be addressed.
“We want to get it right the first time,” he added.
Rogers, too, said he supports broader protections and expects to see pushback on such bills before the General Assembly plans to end the session on March 24.
And LGBT advocates said they are prepared to begin asserting their legislative priorities.
“I will continue to argue for a process that can bring all sides to the table in an effort to create a comprehensive nondiscrimination law for the state of Georgia that will address the concerns of people of faith, the LGBT community and other groups that fear discrimination,” Graham said. “Protecting the civil rights of others should not be a game of winners or losers.”
The bill was Authored by Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville.
"The Pastor Protection Act is a simple reaffirmation of our bedrock principle of separation of church and state," Tanner said. "It makes clear that Georgia respects and honors the sacred oaths taken by our pastors, priests, rabbis and other clergy and that government has no intention of asking them to violate those oaths."
The Associated Press and Dawson County News contributed to this report.