Republican lawmakers in Georgia voted on Wednesday in favor of a religious freedom bill described by LGBT and other civil rights advocates as anti-gay.
An amended version of HB 757, also known as the Religious Liberty Bill, passed by a House vote of 104-65 and a Senate vote of 37-18. Nine House Republicans crossed party lines to reject the measure, while only one GOP senator—JaNice VanNess (Conyers)—cast a dissenting vote. No Democrats voted in favor of the bill.
The bill is meant to protect religious organizations, including churches, religious schools, businesses and associations, from being forced to provide services or accommodate groups “that violate such faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious belief.” It declares that no pastor can be forced to perform, and no individual can be forced to attend, a same-sex wedding and further states that religious groups cannot be forced to hire or retain an employee whose “religious beliefs or practices or lack of either are not in accord with the faith-based organization’s sincerely-held religious belief.”
The bill also shields religious organizations from being forced to rent or allow use of its facilities for purposes it finds “objectionable.” It does, however, explicitly state that it “cannot be used to allow ‘discrimination on any grounds prohibited by federal or state law,’” but opponents say this amendment will likely be ineffective as it is perfectly legal in Georgia (and 28 other states) to terminate an employee for no other reason than their sexual orientation.
HB 757 began as the Pastor Protection Act, a measure meant to protect clergy from being compelled to perform same-sex marriages in the wake of the Supreme Court’s June 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling which enshrined same-sex marriage rights as the law of the land. In February, the state Senate combined the Pastor Protection Act with the First Amendment Defense Act, which prohibits state officials from punishing a religious group or individual who discriminates against LGBT people based on “religious or moral conviction.”
Backers of the bill hailed its passage.
“The First Amendment and the free exercise of religious beliefs is an essential part of our democracy,” Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, one of the bill’s most strident supporters, said following its passage. “It deserves the utmost respect and protection. This legislation does just that and protects these freedoms.”
“We feel we’ve advanced our protection of our First Amendment Right to religious freedom,” Georgia Baptist Convention spokesman Mike Griffin told Reuters. “Our rights of religious liberty don’t end inside the four walls of a church.”
Opponents of the measure are concerned it could be invoked to discriminate against LGBT people, with some calling it a “license to discriminate.”
“This is the first time since Jim Crow that Georgia has legalized discrimination,” lamented state Sen. Vincent Ford (D-Atlanta)
“The decision by the legislature today was to make an egregious and discriminatory bill even worse,” Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading LGBT advocacy organization, said in a statement. “It’s appalling that anti-equality extremists in the legislature are trying to ignore the will of the people of Georgia.”
Some opponents also predicted Georgia could face the same sort of social and economic backlash that followed Indiana’s passage of a similar religious liberty measure last year. The prospect of boycotts and other reprisals forced Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, to veto a 2014 bill that opponents said would have legalized anti-LGBT and other discrimination under the guise of “religious freedom.”
According to Reuters, more than 300 companies, including Georgia-based Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines, have signed a pledge condemning the HB 757 and calling on legislators to reject it. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports studies by the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau predict the negative economic impact of a boycott could run as high as $2 billion.
The measure now heads to the desk of Gov. Nathan Deal, who said he would reject any proposed legislation that “allows discrimination in our state in order to protect people of faith.” Urging his fellow Republicans to ”recognize that the world is changing around us,” Deal—who is a Southern Baptist—invoked the Bible in his criticism of the bill.
“What the New Testament teaches us is that Jesus reached out to those who were considered the outcasts, the ones that did not conform to the religious societies’ view of the world,” he said. “We do not have a belief in my way of looking at religion that says we have to discriminate against anybody. If you were to apply those standards to the teaching of Jesus, I don’t think they fit.”
“I know that there are a lot of Georgians who feel like this is a necessary step for us to take,” the governor said of the bill approval. “I would hope that in the process of these last few days, we can keep in mind the concerns of the faith-based community, which I believe can be protected without setting up the situation where we could be accused of allowing or encouraging discrimination.”
News of the bill’s passage came as many Georgians were horrified to learn that a young gay couple in College Park, near Atlanta, were severely burned when a gay-hating assailant poured boiling water over them while they were sleeping.