Bill protecting pastors from gay marriage OK’d

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A bill that would reaffirm that pastors in Georgia can refuse to perform gay marriages breezed through a House subcommittee on Thursday with a few tweaks to address the concerns of LGBT activists.

The Pastor Protection Act, House Bill 757 from state Rep. Kevin Tanner (photo), has the backing of House Speaker David Ralston and is seen among LGBT activists as the least worrisome of a slate of anti-gay bills that lawmakers are considering. After a 30-minute hearing on Thursday, a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved it.

“With all of the controversy surrounding religious liberty, it is my hope that this will be seen as a good faith effort to find common ground and work together,” Tanner, a Dawsonville Republican, said during the hearing.

The legislation 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 being ordered to be open on Saturday or Sunday. 

The legislation adds little, if any, new protections not already offered by state or federal law, which Tanner admitted during the hearing. But the lawmaker, a deacon in a North Georgia Baptist Church, said he received several calls from concerned pastors after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage last June.

“I want to reassure individuals in the faith community that even though the legal environment has changed with the definition of marriage that they are still protected,” Tanner said.

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said that current state and federal laws are “sufficient to protect for religious beliefs and expression.” And he repeated his recent calls for lawmakers to pass comprehensive civil rights legislation that protects LGBT people and other minorities.

But Graham and Anthony Kreis, a gay University of Georgia law professor, expressed concern over Section 3 of the legislation. That portion protects religious organizations from being forced to have their property used for gay weddings or other ceremonies that don't adhere to their beliefs. Graham and Kreis called the section too broad and said it could allow religious organizations that receive public funds to discriminate against LGBT people in their halfway houses, shelters, soup kitchens or senior housing.

“Because it is worded so broadly, you could run into institutions that could get a free pass when they get state or federal funding to discriminate,” Kreis said.

Rep. Stacey Evans, a Smyrna Democrat, proposed an amendment to address those concerns and limit the scope of the bill to the non-commercial venues of churches.

“This keep us out of the news,” Evans said. “This keeps it clear that we are simply trying to protect pastors and not discriminate against any citizen of this state.”

But Rep. Barry Fleming, a Harlem Republican, balked at the amendment and said it didn't address religious organizations that receive tax dollars. So with a “good faith promise” from lawmakers on the subcommittee, Evans pulled her amendment so that the language could be hashed out later.

An amendment from Rep. Johnnie Caldwell, the Thomaston Republican who chairs the subcommittee, expanded the scope of protections from marriages to also include religious rites and sacraments. The amendment easily passed.

Tanner's Pastor Protection Act now moves to the House Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Wendell Willard, a Sandy Springs Republican. It's the same panel where the controversial “religious freedom” legislation from Sen. Josh McKoon sits. Willard has said he's in no hurry to revisit the bill, which has roiled the State Capitol and divide Republicans for three sessions. 

Several other bills – including House Bill 756, also from Tanner – are more controversial and explicit attacks on LGBT equality. Tanner's other measure would protect private businesses that refuse service to gay couples getting married.

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