Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, who helped stall the rush to an anti-gay "religious freedom" bill earlier this year, wants to craft protections for pastors who refuse to perform gay marriages.
Ralston, a Republican, unveiled his Pastor Protection Act during a legislative retreat on Saturday and then in an interview the AJC on Monday. Via the AJC:
“In Georgia, we’re going to come down clearly on the side of the separation of church and state,” Ralston said, “and as long as you have constitutional scholars debating among themselves whether this is covered, then I think we need to remove all uncertainty and all doubt.”
Ralston unveiled his proposal to fellow House Republicans at a caucus retreat Saturday on Jekyll Island. He also told Gov. Nathan Deal about his plan, which Ralston plans to introduce when lawmakers return to session in January. He said the bill will be sponsored by state Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville.
Ralston (photo) wants a narrowly crafted proposal aimed at pastors. A working draft would apply only to clergy and not to elected or appointed judges. It says:
“No minister of the gospel or cleric or religious practitioner ordained or authorized to solemnize marriages according to the usages of the denomination, when acting in his or her official religious capacity, shall be required to solemnize any marriage in violation of his or her right to free exercise of religion.”
Ralston's proposal comes after a bruising fight earlier this year over a "religious freedom" bill from state Sen. Josh McKoon. That measure united LGBT activists, faith leaders and progressives to fight it, while also causing a rift among Republicans. Critics say McKoon's measure would open the door to anti-gay discrimination and the lawmaker refused to add LGBT protections.
McKoon says he'll push his measure next year – the third consecutive legislative session for the bill – and says Ralston's bill doesn't go far enough. Ralston says the Pastor Protection Act will soothe the fears of conservatives, even if pastors who refuse to conduct same-sex marriages are protected by the Constitution.
LGBT activists are taking a wait-and-see approach to Ralston's bill, but it's unlikely to generate the same level of vocal opposition that McKoon's measure did.
"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," says Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality. "I don't have any problem with the proposal in concept. We would need to see the exact language to see what it would look like."
Graham says that a narrowly-drafted Pastor Protection Act could address the concerns of conservative faith leaders while avoiding the anti-gay side effects that McKoon's broader bill generates.
"We actually know that [McKoon's] RFRA bill as it is written, that it does become a vehicle that can be used for broader discrimination," Graham says. "There are a lot of folks that are out there, very actively spreading misinformation about the Supreme Court ruling. Sen. McKoon has been on the airwaves, encouraging clergy and churches to lawyer up out of fears of lawsuits."
"If this measure is needed to calm people's fears, I don't know that we're going to have a problem with that. We would have to wait to see the specifics of the legislation to know for sure what it says," Graham adds.
Ralston's measure is similar to one that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law last month. Anti-gay groups championed the measure, while critics said it was a solution in search of a problem. LGBT groups didn't oppose it and two openly gay lawmakers voted for it.
But some conservatives in Georgia criticized Ralston's proposal as little more than political posturing to protect incumbent Republican lawmakers in an elections next year. Blogger Jessica Szilagyi dubbed it the "Legislator's Protection Act" in a post for Peach Pundit:
Let’s call a spade a spade. This is actually the Legislator’s Protection Act. Don’t be fooled, people. This is an apology, an olive branch, a caucus career saver, the “I’m sorry I ran over your dog” bouquet of flowers. The ice pack the punk offers you after slugging you in the jaw.
The same man who spent two sessions making sure the religious liberty bills never hit the House floor for a vote now wants to swoop in Cavalia style with a unicorn horn to the tune of Flash! by Queen and introduce this bill to appease a very specific group of the Republican electorate. To save the souls of the Republicans who went out on a limb to appease him and the Governor this spring.