- Associated Press - Thursday, February 11, 2016

ATLANTA (AP) - 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 recent ruling effectively 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, the ACLU has 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. Ralston was criticized by some Republican lawmakers and Evangelical groups, however, when he questioned the need for other measures, including versions of the federal “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

Thursday’s debate put that split on display. Conservative House members said the pastor bill didn’t go far enough but all voted in favor. Several read aloud from the Bible before the House vote. Rep. Kevin Cooke, R-Carrollton, specifically called for action on a broader “Religious Freedom Restoration” bill; he didn’t cast a vote on the pastor bill.

The broader bills would limit government’s ability to infringe on religious beliefs without a compelling interest. State Sen. Josh McKoon, a Republican sponsoring one of the measures, has cited one example of a student group accused of violating hazing policies with a foot-washing ceremony at a public college. If Georgia had such a law, school officials would have been unlikely to take that step, McKoon has said.

Instead, Ralston floated the idea of a law specifically exempting religious leaders from performing weddings, and Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, introduced the bill this year. The bill passed by the House also allows religious institutions to refuse to rent their property for “objectionable” events.

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.”

Ralston, giving a rare speech from the House well, called the bill an opportunity to focus “where there is agreement and mutual trust.” Citing Abraham Lincoln’s use of the Bible verse “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Ralston said the bill could create “the first productive discussion” on a charged issue.

“There are two approaches that we can take when it comes to issues of great significance, like the one that we’re considering here today,” he said. “We can draw arbitrary lines in the sand. We can lash out at those who oppose us and remain intractable. Or we can seek out common ground and build trust and move forward together.”

The bill now goes to the state Senate for review.

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