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The Georgia Senate approved a controversial "religious freedom" bill on Friday that would allow faith-based organizations to discriminate against LGBT people.

The measure, approved 38-14 after nearly three hours of debate, came as its sponsor Sen. Greg Kirk defended his First Amendment Defense Act from critics who said it would gut LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances in place in companies and cities around the state. During the debate over Kirk's bill, opponents worried that the legislation will spark an economic boycott of the state.

Kirk said the bill – combined earlier this week with Rep. Kevin Tanner's Pastor Protection Act and now known as House Bill 757 – "is a live and let live bill."

"We as a state are full of hospitality and we have room for all people. This legislation is about equal protection and not discrimination," Kirk said. 

"I want you to understand this bill is all about equal protection. It only impacts the government's interaction with faith-based organizations or a person who holds a sincerely held religious belief specifically as it relates to marriage. It is very narrow, it is very focused," he added.

Kirk also urged lawmakers to attend church on Sunday and look their pastors in the eye and tell them how they voted.

"There are millions more Georgians who hold that marriage is to be between a man and a woman than marriage is to be between same-sex couples," Kirk said.

Kirk also taunted opponents of the bill and said that if they are concerned about protecting LGBT people from discrimination, they should draft their own bill.

"If you want a law, work on that," Kirk said. 

But earlier on Friday, Republicans engrossed the legislation, a move that prohibited amendments that some Democrats hoped to propose to the bill to add LGBT protections. And earlier this month, a House committee rejected adding LGBT protections to a civil rights bill.

Sen. Bill Cowsert, the Republican Majority Leader, called Kirk's bill a "religious freedom" bill that extends the protections of the Pastor Protection Act to faith-based organizations and people.

"We are in no way perpetuating discrimination against anybody. This bill is narrowly tailored," Cowsert said. "It is absolutely live and let live."

He cautioned opponents of the bill to study the legislation.

"Take a deep breath and settle down on this issue. It is not about discrimination against anybody," he said.

'State-sanctioned discrimination'


Democrats blasted Kirk's legislation during the floor debate.

Sen. Elena Parent, a Decatur Democrat, criticized the legislation as "inartfully drafted" and "unconstitutional" and a bill that would "newly enshrine the ability to discriminate."

"I find this amended legislation really almost worse than before. It vastly broadens the categories of people impacted," Parent said. 

Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat, argued that the legislation would negatively impact the state's economy, echoing concerns from business and hospitality groups. She also countered Kirk's arguments that the legislation had been vetted by lawmakers.

“Disabuse yourself of any notion that this has been vetted," Orrock said. 

"Folks we're on the national stage. We have invested in world-class convention centers and world-class sports arenas. The dollars don't lie. We are sitting here saying we are ready to torch that on the basis of this bill that got two hours at best in the Rules Committee with a version that has never been seen before," Orrock said.

Orrock called the bill "state-sanctioned discrimination against gay people."

"There are untold numbers of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Georgians out there that see we as a legislature are going to take this action. It says once again that you are less than," she said. "It definitely sends the message that if you want to discriminate based on your views of marriage, have at it."

Sen. Emanuel Jones, a Decatur Democrat, said the "discriminatory language" in the bill will shine a negative light on Georgia and hurt its economy.

"I'm concerned about what the headlines are going to be tomorrow," Jones said. "How this state is going to be portrayed publicly because that is what people depend on when they make business decisions."

Jones called the bill "outright discriminatory."

"Some folks in here don't mind. Georgia has a long history of doing just that," he said.

Sen. Horacena Tate, an Atlanta Democrat, questioned why the Senate isn't considering the less divisive Pastor Protection Act as standalone legislation.

"This act is RFRA on steroids and unfortunately, it is also state-sanctioned discrimination," said Tate, referring to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act from Sen. Josh McKoon that's stuck in a House committee. 

"Why is this body being so partisan when our colleagues in the House approached this issue with compromise and common sense," Tate said. "Religious liberty shouldn't mean treating the LGBT community differently than others."

Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat, worried about an economic boycott if Kirk's bill becomes law.

"If you think there is not a boycott coming, just wait. There is going to be a national boycott of Georgia if this passes and becomes law."

Fort also echoed the concerns of LGBT critics of the legislation who have argued that it promotes discrimination against them.

"You have to know what discrimination feels like in order to understand why people might have concerns. When you've known the humiliation of being discriminated against, then you can understand why people have concerns," he said.

"Fear is not an excuse for discrimination," he added.

Fort also said the legislation would "eviscerate" the non-discrimination ordinances in place in Atlanta and nearly five-dozen other jurisdictions around the state.

"This bill does away with any local ordinances that protect against discrimination, like the one in place in Atlanta," Fort said.

'Have courage of your convictions'


Before the bill was approved, the Senate voted 39 to 16 to engross it, which prohibited amendments. The floor vote followed a vote by the Republican Caucus earlier Friday to prohibit amendments during debate.

Fort (third photo) blasted the move to prevent changes to the bill. He said he hoped to offer three amendments to the legislation to protect non-discrimination ordinances, prohibit organizations that receive public funds from discriminating and requiring faith-based organizations that chose to discriminate to post online and in annual reports who they discriminated against.

"We are in hurry up mode again. We want to pass this through. We want to ram in down the throats of the people of Georgia," Fort said. "That's good stuff here and you don't want to debate that. Have the courage of your convictions."

Sen. David Lucas, a Macon Democrat, chided lawmakers for proposing the "religious freedom" legislation and then not wanting to debate it.

"If you feel so strong about it, why not debate it," Lucas said. "I didn't think we came up here to debate religion. I leave that to the clergy. We have more important things to do."

Kirk, as he has since introducing his bill last month, misrepresented the legislation. He told lawmakers that it has been "vetted thoroughly" and was a bill that passed the House in a unanimous vote, so he encouraged them to prohibit amendments to it. 

But Kirk didn't tell lawmakers that the legislation is a hybrid bill that combines his own First Amendment Defense Act with Rep. Kevin Tanner's Pastor Protection Act. Tanner's measure passed the House on Feb. 11 with a 161-0 vote. But Kirk's Senate Bill 284 is drastically different – and much more of a threat to LGBT equality – than Tanner's Pastor Protection Act.

Also Friday, with Kirk's bill at the center of attention, the lawmaker from Americus introduced the chaplain of the day in the Senate. His choice, Rev. Rick Smith of Cheek Memorial Baptist Church in Americus, indirectly urged lawmakers to approve Kirk's legislation.

"All conservatives are asking is that you make good and moral decisions," Smith said. "We are not radicals but we are those who love the word of God. When you think about what a conservative is, it is very simple in its definition. It is one who holds to the word of God."

Fast track, legislative tricks


LGBT and progressive activists, along with faith leaders, have denounced the bill as state-sponsored discrimination. The legislation could gut LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policies in businesses and 60 jurisdictions around the state and allow faith-based organizations that receive public funds to discriminate against LGBT people. 

The bill also prohibits state and local governments from 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.

Critics the legislation say it will allow employees to disregard the non-discrimination policies of their employers and discriminate against LGBT people simply by claiming a "sincerely held religious belief" and allow faith-based groups to counsel gay students with reparative therapy. It would also allow adoption agencies, shelters and food pantries operated by faith-based organizations to discriminate against LGBT people.

And the legislation isn't just bad for LGBT people. Via Protect Thy Neighbor:

The new bill is pretty terrible. In short, it allows any individual or “faith-based” business, non-profit entity, or taxpayer-funded organization to ignore any law that conflicts with their religious beliefs about marriage. This bill would cause real harm to real people and would (ironically) violate the Free Speech and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Thus, any person, business, or taxpayer-funded organization could refuse anyone else rights, services, and benefits because they are part of an interracial couple; are part of an interfaith couple; are a single mother; are part of a same-sex couple; are divorced; are remarried; live or have lived with a partner without being married; or have had sex outside of marriage at any time in their life.

Just a few of the troubling real life consequences could include:

  • a single mother and her child being denied safety at the domestic violence shelter;
  • a hospital denying a man the opportunity to say goodbye to his dying husband;
  • a cemetery corporation denying an interracial couple a shared cemetery plot;
  • a restaurant refusing to allow a child’s birthday party because his parents are divorced; or
  • an unmarried couple and their child being denied a room at a hotel late at night after their car broke down.

Republicans called Kirk's hybrid legislation a "live and let live" bill and framed it as a compromise on Tuesday when it was introduced. 

“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.”

Kirk's legislation has benefitted from legislative tricks from fellow Republicans along the way to its quick passage. Kirk's original bill received a quick hearing after little public notice on Feb. 1. And before the Senate Rules Committee approved it on Tuesday, they had days of delays before offering up the hybrid legislation that was quickly passed.

The bill could now move to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature with lightning speed. Or not. Via Georgia Pol:

Because the bill was passed under a structured rule, the default action, which could be taken without a vote of House members, would be to disagree with the amended bill, sending it back to the Senate. It’s also possible that the bill’s author, Kevin Tanner of Dawsonville, and Speaker David Ralston could agree with the Senate’s changes, and decide to give House members an up or down vote on accepting the measure as sent by the Senate.

If the House accepts the Senate changes, the bill goes to Governor Deal for his signature. If it disagrees, the bill goes to the Senate, which could insist on its version. That would lead to a conference committee, which would produce a final version of the bill.

When the Pastor Protection Act unanimously passed the state House on Feb. 11, lawmakers who supported it argued for a more far-reaching bill. 

"It is a protection we need," Rep. Ed Setzler (third photo) said. "But I want to ask us as a body, aren't we all committed to passing this bill with a strong unanimous vote and going forward and doing more."

Setzler, a Cobb Republican, has proposed his own Religious Freedom Restoration Act, House Bill 837. 

So it's easy to see a path forward for the hybrid bill in the House, gaining quick approval from House lawmakers who wanted more than was offered in the Pastor Protection Act. And they might want it in a hurry, according to the AJC:

If there’s Senate sign-off, there’s talk there may be a rush to send it back to the House today for final approval – perhaps allowing the Legislature to dispose of a highly controversial issue before the weekend.

One possible reason for the push: A crush of local GOP precincts hold meetings across the state on Saturday, and this could give Republican lawmakers some red meat to take home to the conservative activists who make up the party’s base.

But any action from the House is unlikely on Friday. The chamber adjourned before the Senate approved Kirk's bill.