Following an afternoon full of heated debate, the Georgia Senate approved sweeping legislation that purports to protect individuals and faith-based organizations that oppose marriage equality.
The final vote saw 38 senators vote in favor of the bill and 14 against it. The bill now goes back to the House for a final vote — if passed again, it will be sent to the state's Republican governor.
Senators drew largely partisan battle lines over House Bill 757, which unanimously passed the Georgia House of Representatives last week as the Pastor Protection Act. Then it was amended in the Senate Rules Committee to include the controversial First Amendment Defense Act, which prohibits the government from taking any punitive action against an individual or faith-based organization that speaks or behaves according to a sincerely held "religious or moral conviction" that marriage should only take place between two people of the opposite sex.
The bill's lead sponsor in the Senate, Republican Sen. Greg Kirk, positioned the legislation as a "neutral" "live and let live bill," claiming that it does not privilege a certain opinion about marriage over another.
"We as a state are full of hospitality, and we have room for all people," Kirk said on the Senate floor today, defending his bill. "This legislation is about equal protection and not discrimination. … This bill protects the constitutional rights of individuals and faith-based organizations in Georgia."
"This bill takes nothing away" from LGBT couples in Georgia, Kirk argued. "We are providing protections for all beliefs."
Fran Millar, a Republican representing Atlanta, argued that the legislation actually expands the state's understanding of marriage by adding, for the first time to state statute, that marriage is a union "between two people" without referencing gender.
"This language, between two people, that's a big deal in that state," said Millar. "Let's remember what we're really talking about here. And shame on us, because we let the media [control the conversation]. … It will pass, I have no doubt about it. Let's be perfectly straight about what's going on in the bill — and that was not a pun, I might add — and let's move forward."
Supporters of the legislation testified about their personal faith — with Republican Sen. Tommie Williams giving lawmakers a lesson in how he defines a "radical Christian." Noting that his two brothers are both pastors, Williams claimed that his siblings have a "legitimate fear" that marriage equality supporters want to silence and criminalize the free speech of clergy members who oppose same-sex marriage.
But that interpretation was soundly rejected by those opposing the bill. Sen. Gail Davenport, a Democrat representing Jonesboro, argued that "the supporters of this legislation do not have a monopoly of Christianity."
"My faith does not support treating people differently," said Davenport. "My faith does not support creating an entire protected class of people that disagree with the Supreme Court's marriage decision."
"This bill is license to discriminate," said Sen. Vincent Fort, the Democratic whip from Atlanta. "It would not be only a license to discriminate against the LGBT community, which is bad enough. It would be a license to discriminate, creatively, against others. … This issue will continue to plague us until it is made right."
"This FADA is [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act] on steroids," said Horacena Tate, the Democratic caucus chair, also representing Atlanta. "And unfortunately, it is also state-sanctioned discrimination. … Religious liberty does not justify treating the LGBT community different than others."
Today's debate focused largely on the potential financial impact the bill's passage could have, with opponents of the bill pointing to the national backlash sparked by Indiana's so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
"It's important to listen to our job creators, and learn from the mistakes of our friends in Indiana," said Sen. Tate. "Discrimination is bad for business."
"You have on your desks voices of important parts of our economy, begging and pleading with us as lawmakers, please do not pass this bill," said Nan Orrack, an Atlanta Democrat. "We're willing to pass this, and thumb our noses at the [business community]?"
"Here we are, this afternoon, the end of the week, considering a bill that's been hastily put together, clumsily crafted," continued Orrick. "But [this bill] definitely sends the message that if you want to discriminate based on your views of marriage, have at it. The government's not going to have a thing to say about it. It's open season."