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'Religious liberty bill debate: Protecting rights or veiling discrimination?
Fate of bill aimed at same-sex marriage is in governor's hand
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The “religious liberty” bill awaiting Gov. Nathan Deal’s signature or veto is confusing and controversial to some, and clear and righteous to others.

It’s become the last battleground in a culture war over same-sex marriage, which the U.S. Supreme Court legalized nationwide last summer.

The bill, according to language in its first reader summary, ensures religious officials are not “required to perform marriage ceremonies in violation of their legal right to free exercise of religion” and protects “property owners which are religious institutions against infringement of religious freedom.”

Exactly what that last part means is up for debate. It also ensures businesses cannot be required to be open on “rest days,” Saturday or Sunday.

State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, a top floor leader for Deal, said the governor has until May 3 to make his decision.

The bill came before state lawmakers last year but was scrapped when businesses, including chambers of commerce, local convention and visitors bureaus and major corporations, threatened boycotts of Georgia.

The same has been true this year, with Disney, Coca-Cola and Home Depot, among many others, raising alarm bells about the discrimination the bill might codify into law.

Many believe damage control will be necessary even if the bill is vetoed. But does it actually discriminate against gays and lesbians by allowing private enterprise to refuse these individuals service?

Perception is everything.

“The news media has been completely wrong and no one from the governor’s office or anyone in the leadership has stood up to correct them on what it does,” Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, said.

Dunahoo said the bill is a matter of protecting the religious views of Georgians who oppose same-sex marriage and keeping government from infringing on those beliefs.

As an example, he said he did not believe Chick-fil-A, a company with an openly conservative religious ownership, would deny service to gays and lesbians. On the other hand, Dunahoo said the bill would allow businesses, such as a wedding cake maker, to refuse to serve gay couples.

Dunahoo also said it could go the other way; perhaps a gay- or lesbian-owned company could refuse to make a wedding cake that says “marriage is between a man and woman.”

Those who support the bill insist that discrimination is not the motivation.

Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, said he would never turn away gays and lesbians from his dental practice.

And the Rev. Tom Smiley, pastor of the Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville, said the new Midland Station Coffee Co. near the downtown square, which is backed by the church, would be open to all customers.

He denied accusations to the contrary.

“I am grateful I was raised in a home that instilled in me the value of hard work, personal accountability and the principle of treating all people equally, even those who disagreed with me,” Smiley added. “Discrimination just isn’t in my personal DNA.”

Lawmakers said the bill would affect only a small percentage of people, and mostly applies to churches and explicitly faith-based organizations.

Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said the bill is about protecting Christianity.

“It’s an overreaction,” he said of opponents. “You’re going to have some gay companies that are going to want to move. Let them move.”

It goes without saying that Christians have different interpretations and tenets of the faith they hold dear.

The Rev. Terry Walton, senior pastor of the Gainesville First United Methodist Church, said, “if we’re not careful here, we’re going to cut our nose off to spite our face.”

Walton believes the bill is “completely unnecessary” and “veiling discrimination.”

He said he has never been forced to perform a same-sex marriage, for example, “nor would I ever expect to be forced to.”

For Smiley, the bill is about providing him and others protection from discrimination because of their beliefs.

“While I don’t expect the government to force people to like me,” he added, “I do expect it to protect me from discrimination so I can pursue the rights promised me. In order to have a fair and level playing field in the market place, in the political process and in the practice of faith, we must be protected.”

Miller acknowledged how contentious the debate is and the strong convictions of those on both sides of the issue.

In the end, this divisiveness may be the bill’s lasting effect, whether it becomes law or not.

“It’s the fear that seems to be in our land these days,” Walton said. “We’re so afraid of things that we don’t need to be afraid of. And we get all worked up over stuff. ... I scratch my head over it.”

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