The Georgia House overwhelmingly passed the Pastor Protection Act 161-0 on Thursday, easily approving a "religious freedom" measure that reaffirms clergy don't have to officiate gay weddings.
House Speaker David Ralston (photo), whose support has helped fast track the bill from state Rep. Kevin Tanner, made an unusual appearance on the House floor to support the bill as debate wrapped up over the measure.
“I don’t often come to the well, but when I feel strongly about a measure that this body is considering, I feel compelled to do that,” Ralston said.
“Let us reaffirm the important and proper place of our clergy and our religious institutions in our state and in our communities. Let us unite the House, here and now, and keep that spirit with us. I urge your favorable consideration of HB 757,” Ralston said, highlighting the need for the House to “seek out common ground and build trust and move forward together.”
Tanner's bill is one of several "religious freedom" measures introduced by lawmakers this session. Ralston, who helped stall the rush to an anti-gay "religious freedom" measure in 2015, proposed the Pastor Protection Act as a compromise measure between religious conservatives, LGBT activists and business groups worried about the economic consequences of passing anti-gay legislation. The bill was slightly revised during a House Judiciary subcommittee meeting on Feb. 4; the full Judiciary Committee passed it on Tuesday.
Tanner's bill addresses three areas – protecting religious practitioners from being forced to perform gay marriages, offering legal cover for churches and religious institutions who don't want to be forced to use their facilities for a gay marriage, and preventing businesses from being ordered to be open on Saturday or Sunday.
The bill has met little resistance from LGBT activists. There is broad agreement that it will not substantially change existing protections for clergy and religious institutions.
"In theory if this legislation will comfort members of the clergy that feel their rights may be jeopardized because of the same-sex marriage ruling, in concept it really doesn't change things and doesn't cause harm," Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said when the legislation was first proposed last year.
State Rep. Paul Battles, a Republican from Cartersville, articulated the sense of persecution of people of faith that has been so prevalent during discussion about the "religious freedom" bills.
“The religious community is being attacked. And this time, it may be the last time, that the people of god can stand up and say enough is enough. I support this, it may not go as far as it was addressed, but it does make a statement,” Battles said during the floor debate on Thursday.
State Rep. Al Williams, a Democrat from Midway, also spoke in favor of the measure – House Bill 757 – during the House floor.
“And the preachers that have stood in the pulpit when there were problems with what they said, and said it boldly anyhow, I have to support. I support 757 so that they will know government has not forgotten the words you preach on Sunday morning, Saturday morning, or Friday,” Williams said, adding, “So I stand in agreement with  for the assurances it gives those that must lift their voices.”
State Rep. Ed Setzler, a Cobb Republican, supported Tanner's bill but said it didn't go far enough. Setzler proposed House Bill 837, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, in late January.
"It is a protection we need," Setzler 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."
The state's longest-serving openly gay lawmaker, Rep. Karla Drenner, voted for the Pastor Protection Act. Rep. Keisha Waites, the legislature's other openly gay member, had an excused absence and did not cast a vote.
State Sen. Josh McKoon, a Republican whose "religious freedom" bill is stuck in the House Judiciary Committee, blasted Tanner's measure during an appearance Thursday on the House floor. Calling it the “Politician Protection Act,” McKoon decried the bill as a “cheap political trick,” and called on legislators to support his Senate Bill 129 and other more staunchly anti-LGBT pieces of legislation.
The Pastor Protection Act now moves to the Senate, which is also considering of the most sweeping anti-gay measures proposed this session. That is the Frist Amendment Defense Act of Georgia, or Senate Bill 284, from state Sen. Greg Kirk, a Republican from Americus. The Senate Rules Committee was scheduled to consider Kirk's bill on Wednesday, but after stalling for hours, Kirk then said he wasn't ready to discuss it.
On Thursday, Kirk and the committee stalled again – postponing the hearing until Tuesday.