The state Senate Rules Committee passed a sweeping “religious freedom” bill on Tuesday that would allow faith-based non-profits that receive public funds to discriminate against LGBT people.
Lawmakers combined the controversial First Amendment Defense Act from Sen. Greg Kirk with the Pastor Protection Act from Rep. Kevin Tanner to create new legislation that LGBT activists decried as state-sponsored discrimination. The bill now moves to the full Senate for a vote.
“It is worse than RFRA,” said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, referring to the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act from state Sen. Josh McKoon that has roiled the State Capitol for three years.
“It allows faith-based organizations to withhold services if they choose to do so,” Graham told the Senate Rules Committee. “The language in this combined bill is still unacceptable and codifies into law discrimination. I am especially concerned that this bill will have a chilling effect on the state’s LGBT families.”
Graham and other progressive activists who criticized the measure said it would allow faith-based organizations that receive tax dollars – and are contractually required to follow non-discrimination protections – to skirt those protections.
“This bill’s only purpose is to stigmatize loving couples and reignite a debate that has been settled by the court of law,” Graham added.
The measure approved on Tuesday was offered by Republican lawmakers as a “live and let live” bill. It combined Tanner’s Pastor Protection Act – which unanimously passed the House last week – with Kirk’s legislation, which has been mired in controversy since he proposed it last month. On Feb. 1, Kirk's original bill received a quick hearing from the Senate Rules Committee with little advance public notice.
The Senate Rules Committee was scheduled to consider Kirk’s bill last Wednesday, but pushed debate to Thursday only to then delay it again five more days until Tuesday. That’s when lawmakers offered the combined substitute measure.
“I listened to the concerns of the faith community, the business community and the LGBT community and I truly believe this legislation protects all individuals,” said Kirk (top photo). “The bill I bring before you today is not a perfect bill but it is a bill very much needed to protect those who have given their life to ministry.”
Like Kirk’s original proposal, the new bill would not allow public officials in Georgia, such as probate judges, to refuse to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. And like the Pastor Protection Act that passed the House, it reaffirms that pastors do not have to officiate gay marriages and that churches don’t have to host them.
The bill also prohibits state and local governments against taking “discriminatory action” against people or faith-based groups acting on “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction” that marriage is between one man and one woman, and that sex is reserved to heterosexual marriages.
The bill defines “discriminatory actions” as impacting the tax-exempt status of a faith-based organization, denying or withholding grants, contracts and licenses, denying public benefits and withholding education facilities. The bill allows people to file claims for damages and attorneys’ fees.
'It is simply a tolerance bill'
Conservative religious groups and activists praised the new combined legislation.
“I just want to support this bill because this is a very common sense live and let live bill. I have a belief of marriage that comes from the Bible,” said Virginia Galloway of the anti-gay Faith & Freedom Coalition.
Jane Robbins, a senior fellow with the anti-gay American Principles Project, echoed Galloway’s support.
“It is simply a tolerance bill,” Robbins said. “You live your life according to faith or lack of faith and I live my life according to my faith.”
“To people of faith, our faith is not a hobby. It is not something that we can put aside when we got out in the business place. The First Amendment Defense Act protects our right to live out our faith,” she added.
Mike Griffin, the public affairs representative for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, said the combined bills – like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups – are “two great tastes that taste great together.”
State Sen. David Shafer (seoncd photo), the Republican leader of the Senate, also argued that the combined legislation is “a bill that protects all beliefs.”
“I would hate to see all the faith-based adoption agencies shut down because their sponsoring agencies hold to a different belief of marriage than the Supreme Court,” Shafer said.
But Allison Smith-Burk, public policy director for the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the bill would gut the LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination protections the agency has in place for the 46 state-certified domestic violence centers it operates across Georgia.
“We believe this might lead to a denial of service for some people.” Smith-Burk said.
Gerry Weber, the former legal director for ACLU of Georgia, said the bill would prohibit companies with LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policies from enforcing them. He offered a scenario in which the gay spouse of a cancer patient at a hospital is denied visitation by an employee in violation of the hospital’s policies.
Under the new combined legislation, “the company’s own non-discrimination policy will lose. That is the impact of this legislation,” Weber said.
Robbie Medwed, education director of the LGBT Jewish education and outreach organization SOJOURN, said the bill would allow faith-based groups that receive tax dollars to counsel LGBT students with reparative therapy and other methods not accredited by medical and mental health groups.
“This would allow any faith-based agency to go into any public school and preach against any students there,” Medwed said.
Sen. Steve Henson, the Democratic leader in the Senate, pushed for the committee to delay the bill so lawmakers had time to consider the combined legislation, which wasn’t publicly available before Tuesday’s hearing. That effort was voted down and the bill could be considered by the full Senate later this week.