A diverse group of progressive clergy criticized a broad anti-gay "religious freedom" bill on the steps of the State Capitol on Wednesday, a day after a Senate panel approved the measure.
“It’s a Trojan horse," said Joshua Heller, president of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association and rabbi of Congregation B'nai Torah. "You started with this relatively innocuous bill about preachers and churches being able to follow their own heart, and follow their own scripture. And it now has a very dangerous surprise inside, allowing organizations that take our tax money to serve the public to decide that they’re going to serve everyone except for that guy."
Heller was part of a group of faith leaders reacting to the move by the Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday. The panel combined two "religious freedom" bills into one measure and quickly passed it on to the full Senate for a vote.
GOP lawmakers called the hybrid measure – a mix of Rep. Kevin Tanner's Pastor Protection Act and Sen. Greg Kirk's First Amendment Defense Act – a compromise. But LGBT and progressive critics said the combined measure allows faith-based organizations to discriminate against LGBT people and called it state-sponsored discrimination.
On Wednesday, the group of 15 faith leaders from Clergy Unite Against Discrimination and Faith in Public Life stood on the steps of the Capitol and called the new bill “spiritual hypocrisy” and “dangerous and toxic.”
“This is not even a question about religious practice or religious freedom, the supporters of this legislation are already some of the most free people on god’s green earth. They want the citizens of Georgia to pay for their religious discrimination,” said Rev. David Lewicki of North Decatur Presbyterian Church.
The new language of Kirk's revised Senate Bill 284 carves out protections from state and local penalties for individuals and faith-based organizations that have “sincerely held beliefs” around marriage. These include: impacting the tax-exempt status of a faith-based organization, denying or withholding grants, contracts and licenses, denying public benefits and withholding education facilities.
“If you are providing services to the broader community on my dime, then you don’t get to decide who is part of the public and who isn’t,” Heller said.
On Tuesday, critics of the legislation said the broad language of the bill could negate the LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policies of non-profits and businesses. If an employee cited a "sincerely held religious belief" and refused to provide services to an LGBT person, in violation of the employer's policies, a court would likely side with the employee and set aside the non-discrimination policy. The bill would also allow faith-based groups that receive taxpayer funds to discriminate against LGBT people in a host of services, including adoptions.
On Wednesday, the clergy expressed concern and dismay that fellow people of faith would support the “religious freedom” measures.
“So to my fellow people of faith on the other side of this issue, my encouragement would be quit worrying about this bill and get busy with the work of the Bible – attending to the widow and the orphan and the outcast,” said Rev. Trey Lyon of Park Ave Baptist Church.
The clergy also called out the queerphobic motivations behind the “religious freedom” messaging in Kirk's new bill.
“And I want to make sure that you all are clear, that this bill is being used not to protect my religious freedom but, in fact to discriminate against people. It is simply a discrimination act cloaked in the veil of freedom. And, as a person who is a religious leader that is offensive to me, and to other people of faith,” said Rev. Kimberly Jackson, Episcopalian Chaplain at the colleges of Atlanta University Center.
The Senate could vote on Kirk's bill as early as Friday.
“I would ask that every person of faith in Georgia say about this bill, ‘not in my name, not in our name, not in god’s name,'" Heller said.
Heller and Lewicki were among faith leaders who spoke out against the "religious freedom" legislation during a Feb. 2 press conference inside the State Capitol. Progressive faith leaders also rallied against the legislation in 2015.