Georgia Senate to Vote on Sweeping Antigay 'License to Discriminate'

Georgia Sen. Greg Kirk
Georgia Senator Greg Kirk

A Senate committee in Georgia voted to advance a double whammy of antigay legislation Tuesday, reports Project Q Atlanta. The sweeping bill, which would allow faith-based organizations to refuse to serve same-sex couples without consequence, is now on its way to the Senate floor for consideration. 

The legislation is a combination of two bills claiming to protect the "religious freedom" of business owners and clergy members who oppose same-sex marriage. The combined legislation incorporates the so-called First Amendment Defense Act (introduced by Sen. Greg Kirk, pictured above) into the Pastor Protection Act, which passed the House unanimously last week. The Associated Press notes that this latest effort "combines two of the eight bills introduced this year seeking legal exemptions for opponents of same-sex marriage."

But opponents of these bills say they amount to a license to discriminate against LGBT people and have characterized them as more damaging than Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act that ignited national controversy and enduring backlash last year. Georgia's own RFRA has been hotly debated in the state assembly for the past three years but has failed to advance to the governor's desk, reports Project Q

The new legislation is "worse than RFRA," Jeff Graham, the executive director of Georgia Equality, said during his testimony before the Senate Rules Committee, which voted to pass the combined measure Tuesday. 

“It allows faith-based organizations to withhold services if they choose to do so,” Graham continued in his testimony. “The language in this combined bill is still unacceptable and codifies into law discrimination. I am especially concerned that this bill will have a chilling effect on the state’s LGBT families.”

That "chilling effect" could come from the bill's numerous provisions that allow businesses receiving funding from the state to effectively ignore the U.S. Supreme Court's marriage equality mandate by citing a "sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction." 

Although the legislation would not permit public officials, such as judges or county clerks, to refuse to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple, it does allow business owners and individuals to file a lawsuit and possibly receive financial compensation if they feel their religious freedom has been infringed upon. 

It further prohibits the state of Georgia — or any local government officials — from engaging in any "discriminatory action" against individuals or "faith-based organizations" that refuse to serve same-sex couples, reports Project Q. It defines such "discriminatory action" as any change in an organization's tax-exempt status (including a change in the tax-exempt donation policies for contributions to such groups), the imposition of any tax or financial penalty for a group or person denying service to same-sex couples, or any denial of a government grant, scholarship, employment, and access to education or speech forums.  

That means that a Georgia woman legally married to another woman could be fired or denied employment at any "faith-based" organization because she is a lesbian, but the government cannot penalize the employer for terminating the woman's employment. 

Project Q also notes that the new legislation's inclusion of the Pastor Protection Act reaffirms that members of the clergy may not be forced to perform a marriage ceremony that is contrary to their faith. Not only is that protection already enumerated in the U.S. Constitution's promise of freedom of religion, there have not been any lawsuits filed against churches or clergy that refused to marry a same-sex couple. 

High-profile suits filed against bakers, florists, and other wedding service providers in several states have all focused on the fact that the business in question is open to the public and therefore must serve all members of the public equally, regardless of an individual business owner's personal faith practices. 

Supporters of the new combined legislation in Georgia contend that it is "simply a tolerance bill" that "protects all beliefs," reports Project Q. The Republican leader of the Georgia Senate, Sen. David Schafer, said during Tuesday's hearing that he would "hate to see all the faith-based adoption agencies shut down because their sponsoring agencies hold to a different belief of marriage than the Supreme Court." 

That appears to be a reference to the oft-cited case of Catholic Charities in Massachusetts, which threatened to end all its child welfare services in the state if it embraced marriage equality. In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to grant all couples the freedom to marry, prompting Catholic Charities to voluntarily end its adoption and foster care services in the state, since officials refused to place children in the homes of LGBT prospective foster or adoptive parents. The scenario played out similarly in several other states in the past decade and is frequently cited by those opposed to marriage equality as an example of the dire consequences of legal same-sex marriage. 

Earlier this month, Georgia lawmakers voted down an amendment to the state's nondiscrimination law that would have added protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, sex, disability, or veteran status.