House Speaker David Ralston moved to undercut a controversial “religious freedom” bill on Wednesday by offering one that protects pastors from gay marriage in a way that's likely to pass muster with LGBT activists.
Ralston (photo), the Republican leader who helped stall the “religious freedom” bill last year, hinted at a possible compromise in July with his Pastor Protection Act. On Wednesday, the bill was unveiled as state Rep. Kevin Tanner, a Republican from Dawsonville, formally filed House Bill 757.
It's likely to be on a fast-track for approval – at least in the House, according to Georgia Pol.
The bill should get a first reading in the House on Thursday, and quick passage of the measure is expected, given that it is supported by Speaker Ralston. While what will happen in the Senate is uncertain, the speaker indicated he hopes the measure will be supported there as well.
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 first provision protects ministers and other religious practitioners from being force to solemnize marriages in violation of their Second Amendment right to freedom of religion under the Georgia or U.S. Constitutions. While this right is widely recognized already, this portion of the bill further protects pastors from a possible breach in the wall between church and state.
The second major provision of the bill relates to the use of property owned by a church or religious organization, and protects that property from being used for a purpose the organization objects to. The measure applies to tax exempt organizations which are “a church, a religious school, an association or convention of churches, a convention mission agency, or an integrated auxiliary of a church or convention or association of churches.” An example of where this section might apply would be if a LGBT couple wanted to use a church facility as the site of a marriage, even if that marriage would be performed by someone not affiliated with that facility.
The final provision of the act prevents governments from requiring a business to be open on Saturday or Sunday, the two days of rest already listed in the Georgia Code. As an example of how this section would apply, based on a real law in Brazil, government could not force a gas station operated by Seventh Day Adventists to be open on Saturday, the day of rest for that denomination.
The legislation adds little, if any, new protections not already offered by state or federal law. That's why – when Ralston first mentioned his proposal last year – LGBT activists said it would not likely generate any opposition from them.
“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.
“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.
The “religious freedom” legislation from state Sen. Josh McKoon, on the other hand, has been derided by critics – LGBT activists, progressives and faith leaders – as opening the door to anti-gay discrimination. McKoon has dismissed those concerns, but refuses to add explicit LGBT protections in the measure.
In Texas last year, a bill similar to Ralston's Pastor Protection Act was signed into law. LGBT groups didn't oppose it and two gay lawmakers voted for it.
As the House considers Ralston's bill, McKoon's legislation remains stuck in the House Judiciary Committee. And the powerful Republican who chairs that panel is no hurry to revisit it.