- Associated Press - Thursday, February 18, 2016

ATLANTA (AP) - Georgia’s state Senate is set to vote Friday on a bill allowing faith-based organizations to refuse services to same-sex couples without government penalties, including loss of taxpayer funding.

House Bill 757 is included on the full Senate’s agenda for the day, determined by the chamber’s powerful Rules committee. The panel, controlled by majority Republicans, approved the measure this week.

The bill combines a Senate proposal shielding adoption agencies, schools and other organizations from penalty for opposing same-sex marriage and a bill unanimously approved by the House allowing religious officials to decline performing the unions.

State Sen. Greg Kirk, a Republican from Americus, initially proposed the exemption for faith-based organizations as a separate bill titled the “First Amendment Defense Act.” Adding Kirk’s measure to the House proposal speeds up the legislative process.

Senate Republicans this week said their changes would protect any view of legal marriage, including same-sex marriage. They also said that adoption and other social service agencies run by faith-based organizations shouldn’t lose access to state funding because they disagree with the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

If the Senate passes the bill Friday, it will return to the House for a response.

Supporters of the original House bill protecting clergy acknowledged that religious officials already could refuse to perform marriages outside their faith under the U.S. Constitution but argued it would reassure people following the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling effectively legalizing gay marriage. As a result, the House bill received little resistance from gay-rights advocates or the state’s business community on its way to unanimous approval, aided by support from the chamber’s top Republican Speaker David Ralston who said it offered the first chance for “productive discussion” on a charged issue.

But gay-rights supporters say the Senate changes give state approval to discrimination against same-sex couples. Gerry Weber, an attorney who handles constitutional cases, also warned at a hearing on the bill that employees of private companies could use such a law to defend actions based on religious belief, even if the employer has its own nondiscrimination policy.

Officials with the Georgia and Metro Atlanta chambers of commerce, intent on avoiding the boycott threats Indiana companies received after passage of a broad religious freedom law there in 2015, said this week that they’re concerned about “adverse ramifications for Georgia’s economy.” Officials with both organizations had worked with senators to improve the bill but ultimately didn’t endorse it.


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