Georgia lawmakers in the House and Senate passed a sweeping "religious freedom" bill on Wednesday that allows faith-based groups, churches and individuals to discriminate against LGBT people.
The passage of House Bill 757 – renamed the Free Exercise Protection Act – came with little advance notice on Wednesday and was pitched by Republicans as a compromise to legislation that has sparked a national backlash. But the rewrite of the legislation still allows faith-based organizations to discriminate and threatens LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances in cities across Georgia.
The legislation passed 104 to 65 (third photo) in the Georgia House after little more than an hour of debate. The provisions that allow LGBT discrimination contradict what House Speaker David Ralston and Gov. Nathan Deal had said in recent days they wanted – warning lawmakers away from a bill that offers even the perception of discrimination.
But opponents of the measure made it clear that discrimination was the primary aim of the legislation.
"This language does away with the idea of mutual respect and replaces it with a license to discriminate against a community of Georgians," Rep. Karla Drenner (second photo), a lesbian, said in remarks that at times personal, emotional and fiery.
"This bill says I am not as much of a citizen as my neighbor," she added. "When we allow discrimination, we abandon our principles and we forsake our claim as an enlightened society. Freedom is an all or nothing principle. There are no shades of liberty. When I am not as free as my neighbor, we all lose."
'What this bill allows is discrimination'
House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams mocked that the legislation says it can't be used to allow "discrimination on any grounds by federal or state law" by pointing out that Georgia law doesn't include LGBT protections and that non-discrimination ordinances are in place in cities. So the legislation would threaten those municipal protections.
"What this bill allows is discrimination," Abrams said. "This bill for several pages transgresses on the rights of others under the guise of religion."
"We cannot balance discrimination on the backs of those we force to bend. House Bill 757 as amended forces a community to bend to the will of others," Abrams said.
Rep. Taylor Bennett, whose mother is a lesbian, also blistered the legislation. The rewritten substitute includes portions of the Pastor Protection Act, which passed the House unanimously in February, and two anti-gay measures – the First Amendment Defense Act and two "religious freedom" bills. Bennett said lawmakers came together to pass the Pastor Protection Act, but moved away from that with the new bill offered on Wednesday.
"What we sent to the Senate was a shield. What we got back today was not a shield but a sword," Bennett said. "Freedom isn't defined by a perspective, it is defined by true equality. This bill abandons that principle."
Reps. Keisha Waites and Park Cannon, the two other openly gay members of the House, also criticized the legislation. Waites said "the very premise" of the bill is to discriminate, while Cannon pointed out that the legislation would allow domestic violence centers operated by faith-based organizations to turn away LGBT victims.
Rep. Culver Kidd, a Democrat from Milledgeville, said he grew up at a time when LGBT people were referred to with offensive slang nicknames. But over time, he's worked at the State Capitol with his gay brother-in-law and spends time with a gay friend who was married after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex unions last year. He told lawmakers the Pastor Protection Act was enough.
"From the heart, I believe this bill is wrong," Kidd said.
'Not allowing for very overt discrimination'
But Republican lawmakers, led by Rep. Kevin Tanner (top photo), repeatedly called the rewritten legislation a compromise that didn't allow discrimination. Tanner proposed the original House Bill 757, then known as the Pastor Protection Act, and House Bill 756, which allowed businesses to discriminate against LGBT people.
Last month, the Senate combined the Pastor Protection Act with the anti-gay portions of the First Amendment Defense Act from Sen. Greg Kirk into bill. It passed the Senate on Feb. 19 and ignited a national controversy. The Senate action sent the hybrid legislation to the House, which responded with the rewritten bill that passed on Wednesday.
The new legislation now goes to the Senate, which could vote on it as soon as Wednesday.
"I will tell you that this been a long process and we worked very closely with our friends in the Senate and others to try and come up with a compromise," Tanner said.
Tanner said he supported the legislation for "not allowing for very overt discrimination and keeping Georgia the No. 1 place to do business."
Rep. Randy Nix, who said he has gay family members, also supported the bill.
"I love those boys a lot and the last thing I would ever do is to see them discriminated against. They did not choose to be what they happen to be. But this bill has addressed as fairly as we can this very strong passion that I do not want to participate that gay marriage," Nix said.
Rep. Jay Powell said lawmakers listened to all sides in the debate over the legislation, even "the gay part of our community."
"I feel like we have a pretty good agreement if everybody hates it. It strikes a fine balance," Powell said.
"Today we see a balanced approach, something that protects religious liberty without authorizing discrimination. It protects our clergy, it protects our religious and faith-based organizations. It protects that the individual," Powell added.
Majority Leader Jon Burns said the legislation "is the right bill for all of God's children."
Senate follows House in approving bill
The rewritten legislation apprived by the House quickly moved to the Senate, where it passed 37-18 (fourth photo). The bill now goes to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature.
As the Senate debated the measure late Wednesday, several progressive lawmakers – including Sens. Nan Orrock, Elena Parent, Vincent Fort and Emanuel Jones – offered amendments to defang the bill. Orrock's changes would have restored the legislation to its original Pastor Protection Act.
But Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who has campaigned against LGBT issues, ruled the amendments out of order.
Parent said the legislation amounted to "bad policy."
"Whatever is happening here is bad policy," Parent said. "It has not been vetted. There have not been any committees. The public has not been heard on this legislation. It is really the witching hour. When things happen real fast, real dangerous, without a lot of eyes on them, bad policy is made."
Parent also blasted the bill's supporters for saying it provides protections but failing to note that protections for LGBT people are offered through local ordinances in the state. The legislation only clarifies that it does not impact protections offered to classes of people covered in state and federal laws.
Parent said the legislation would "gut" those municipal protections.
"Let's have a reminder course on this," Parent said, calling the lack of LGBT protections a "huge hole." "A lot of people are not protected at all."
Fort said the bill should make it clear that if a city, such as Atlanta, has a non-discrimination ordinance in place that House Bill 757 would not impact it.
"Now we gather here tonight and we are on the cusp in Georgia for the first time since Jim Crow of taking someone's rights away and codifying discrimination and that is wrong," Fort said.
'Today is a great day in Georgia'
Orrock compared the legislation to other "sketchy bills" the legislature has passed this session.
"I would like to think this bill, in this form, would not be signed into law by this governor given his grave concerns about discrimination," Orrock said.
"This is a step in the wrong direction. I urge you to search your hearts," she added. "Everyone in here knows someone who is gay. We all do. We have gay friends, gay family, gay teachers, gay pastors, gay athletes, in every aspect of society and every specter. You all know those people. In our midst, we have people elected and serving that come from the LGBT community. Think when you cast your vote of the hurtful message you are sending if this passes into law."
Sen. Harold Jones said the bill is nothing more than an angry response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision last year legalizing gay marriage.
"The Supreme Court has decided in this country that marriage in itself is a fundamental right and persons that are the same sex can partake into that fundamental right and we're debating infringing on that fundamental right," Jones said.
"When did anybody in this chamber decide they were heterosexual? Do you wrestle with it when you go to bed at night? No. Because God made you that way. That is who you are as an individual and as a person. You are a heterosexual person. God made somebody gay," Jones added.
But Sen. Greg Kirk (bottom photo), who sponsored the anti-gay First Amendment Defense Act, defended the legislation and said critics who say the measure allows discrimination are wrong.
"Today is a great day in Georgia," Kirk said. "I believe this is a great compromise. It is a good bill."
Kirk also praised lawmakers for supporting the rewritten legislation.
"The Georgia General Assembly leads the nation in dealing with the definition of marriage. There was a need for this law and it took Georgia to lead the nation," Kirk said.