A Republican state lawmaker wants to protect people, businesses and churches from gay marriage by prohibiting them from facing legal penalties and gutting LGBT non-discrimination ordinances across Georgia.
State Sen. Greg Kirk, a former Southern Baptist pastor and Republican from Americus, introduced his First Amendment Defense Act of Georgia on Thursday during a press conference at the State Capitol. (Watch below) He defended the legislation after an onslaught of criticism from local and national LGBT groups, who denounced a draft of the bill as divisive and a threat to legally married gay couples.
"I'm proposing that we proceed on a principle first articulated by those who fought for same sex marriage – that's simply live and let live," Kirk said. "It prevents government discrimination against faith-based adoption agencies, religious schools, youth programs, student organizations and other non-profit organizations whose sponsoring churches hold to the traditional view of marriages. No one wants these organizations to be criminalized because of their belief in the tradition of marriage."
But Kirk repeatedly said that his proposal would not offer protections to probate judges who refuse to grant marriage licenses to gay couples. That's a stark change from a draft of the legislation floating around the Capitol earlier this week. It's also a difference between his legislation and the First Amendment Defense Act, a federal proposal that Kirk said he used as a model.
"The legislation does not challenge the same-sex marriage decision of the Supreme Court. It does not excuse a public official from doing his or her official duty with respect to marriages. But it does offer protections to private individuals or organizations who hold to the traditional view of marriage and that it should be between a man and a woman," Kirk said.
"The First Amendment Defense Act of Georgia in no way impedes, hinders or otherwise interferes with same-sex couples' right to obtain a marriage license. It simple protects the rights of those who continue to believe that marriage is to be between a man and a woman," Kirk added.
But Kirk brushed aside concerns from Georgia's two U.S. senators – Johnny Isakson and David Perdue – that state lawmakers should leave the anti-gay legislation to them.
"How many other issues are we waiting on the feds to make a decision on? I think Georgia can take the lead on this," Kirk said.
Kirk has yet to file his bill and declined on Thursday to name any co-sponsors, though he said a majority of the GOP conference backed it. The proposal is by far the most far-reaching of the now four anti-gay bills being considered by lawmakers. Two of those bills came from state Rep. Kevin Tanner – House Bill 756, which would allow private businesses to deny service to gay couples getting married, and House Bill 757, which is the Pastor Protection Act and would reaffirm that pastors could not be forced to conduct gay marriages. LGBT critics contend that bill, though, would also threaten non-discrimination ordinances.
Lawmakers also face the controversial "religious freedom" bill from state Sen. Josh McKoon. It's currently stuck in the House Judiciary Committee. When asked how his bill differs from McKoon's, he said there's "a lot of difference."
"In a nutshell, the RFRA bill is a shotgun approach. This is very pin-pointed and very specific," he said.
'I've grown up with friends who live gay lifestyle'
Kirk said he extensively vetted the legislation and the final version was at least the fifth draft. The bill essentially creates a protected class of people – those who believe that marriage is between one man and one woman. When pushed by reporters, Kirk hesitated to say if he would expand the bill to also protect LGBT people.
"I am open in listening but I do want to be very particular in pointing out that the problems that we have dealt with are the people I am trying to protect," he said.
Kirk also said that his vetting of the legislation did not include any LGBT organizations.
"None of the groups have come to me to talk to me. I have had other groups come to talk with me," Kirk said.
"Look, I'm 52 years old. I've grown up with friends who now live a gay lifestyle but they are still very close friends to me and I care deeply about them. And I have shared this with some of my friends and asked their viewpoint as well and that's been part of my vetting process," he added.
Kirk initially said the legislation would protect people and religious organizations. But later in the press conference, he said the bill would protect businesses that refuse to serve gay customers and might run afoul of non-discrimination ordinances. Some 60 jurisdictions in Georgia have passed ordinances that protect LGBT residents and other classes of people.
"The bill will not allow the government to discriminate against that business because of their belief in traditional marriage," Kirk said.
UPDATE | Kirk filed the legislation, now known as Senate Bill 284, late Thursday. Sponsors include McKoon.