- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 16, 2016

ATLANTA (AP) - A bill headed toward a vote in the Georgia Senate would allow faith-based organizations to refuse services to same-sex couples without government penalties, including loss of taxpayer funding.

The powerful Senate Rules committee on Tuesday added that language to a bill unanimously approved by the House last week allowing religious officials to decline performing same-sex marriage ceremonies. The move combines two of the eight bills introduced this year seeking legal exemptions for opponents of same-sex marriage after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling effectively legalized the unions.

The bill protecting pastors, however, received little opposition on its way to a House vote. Gay rights advocates though harshly criticized the broader Senate bill, known as the “First Amendment Defense Act,” shielding adoption agencies, schools and other organizations from penalty for opposing same-sex marriage.

Gay rights advocates condemned the bill as dangerous for same-sex couples, while Senate Democrats warned it could prompt boycotts of Georgia companies and allow refusal of service to unmarried couples or single parents.

Georgia’s business community also remains leery of any bill that could prompt boycott threats Indiana received in 2015 following passage of a different religious measure. In a joint statement Tuesday, officials with the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce said they worked with senators to “help improve the bill.”

“There are still unresolved issues that must be addressed in this bill in addition to the underlying concerns that remain about the potential adverse ramifications for Georgia’s economy, however these changes help move the bill in the right direction,” the statement said.

Senate Republicans said during Tuesday’s hearing that the measure would protect any view of legal marriage, including same-sex marriage. The bill goes on to specifically state those views may include “the belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a union.” No other opinion of marriage is included in the bill’s language.

Gerry Weber, an attorney who handles constitutional law cases, said the bill could be used in court by employees of private businesses defending actions based on religious belief, such as a hospital employee who refuses visitation time for a same-sex couple.

“You have huge companies in this state that have nondiscrimination policies to encourage employees to come to the state,” Weber said. “This legislation will allow any individual employee who claims a religious basis for discriminating to do so without being subject to the company’s own policy.”

State Sen. Greg Kirk, an Americus Republican who first proposed the exemption for faith organizations as a separate bill called the “First Amendment Defense Act,” said the combined measure is “very much needed.” He said the bill would not protect government employees who refuse to perform requires duties, including clerks who issue marriage licenses.

State Sen. David Shafer, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, described the proposal as “live and let live.”

“I would hate to see all the faith-based adoption agencies shut down because most of their sponsoring organizations continue to hold a different interpretation of marriage than the Supreme Court,” Shafer said.

The Rules committee determines which bills receive a vote by the full chamber; the panel has not scheduled a vote for the combined HB 757 yet.

Several Evangelical organizations spoke in favor the bill, including the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. The organizations didn’t oppose the Pastor Protection Act in the House but made it clear they wanted broader protection.

“We’re not just interested in the shepherds, we’re interested in the sheep,” spokesman Mike Griffin told the committee about the combined bill. “We’re thankful for this merger.”

___

The bill is HB 757.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide