Metro Weekly

Georgia Senate passes amended “religious freedom” bill

Sponsors combined two bills to include controversial anti-LGBT provisions in amended measure

Georgia State Capitol (Photo: connor.carey, via Wikimedia.)

Georgia State Capitol (Photo: connor.carey, via Wikimedia.)

Georgia legislators may have pulled off a sleight of hand, but no one is being fooled by the Peach State’s latest attempt at passing anti-LGBT legislation.

The Georgia Senate on Friday passed an amended version of a religious freedom bill that was the result of combining a measure known as the Pastor Protection Act — which passed the House by a unanimous vote — with provisions from a Georgia version of the First Amendment Defense Act, CNN reports. But critics of the amended bill say that the provisions adopted from the latter measure unfairly target LGBT people and same-sex couples for discrimination.

The initial Pastor Protection Act was largely noncontroversial, in that it largely reiterated already existing protections provided by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Under the original bill, ministers would not have to perform marriages that violate their religious beliefs, religiously-affiliated institutions would not have to rent facilities for marriages that violate their beliefs, and business owners could remain closed on the day they acknowledge as their Sabbath Day.

But the provisions added to the bill from the First Amendment Defense Act essentially condone discrimination so long as an individual or a business owner can cite a “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction” about homosexuality, same-sex marriage or extramarital relations. The government would be prohibited from taking retaliatory action — such as the revoking or denial of licensing, accreditation, certification or special tax breaks — against any person who speaks out or acts in accordance with those beliefs or convictions.

The bill now heads back to the Republican-dominated House. If the House approves the amended measure, it will go to Gov. Nathan Deal (R) for his signature into law.

Yet the bill has already received some backlash. According to the Savannah-based-CBS affiliate WTOC, Kelvin Williams, the owner 373K Telecom, based in Decatur, Ga., has said he is going to move his company out of state because of the bill’s implications for his business. Williams says he needs to be able to attract talent for his business, and passing laws that are viewed as discriminatory are counter-productive.

“There’s two reasons why we’re moving out,” Williams told WTOC. “Number one, it’s hard for us to attract talent because our staff is made up of people from all walks of life. And the second reason is we have a serious problem in giving our tax dollars, our corporate income to a state that would even consider passing this type of legislation.”

More than 300 other Georgia-based companies have signed on to a letter being circulated by the Metro Atlanta Chamber opposing the bill. Mary Moore, the founder and CEO of Cook’s Warehouse, one of the signatories to the letter, gave an interview saying she has already been approached by international business colleagues asking her why the state is focusing on the First Amendment Defense Act instead of issues like transportation or poverty.

“If this moves forward, it will be a huge step backwards for Atlanta,” Moore said in the interview. “We will become a national poster child for discrimination.”

And Right Wing Watch, a project of People for the American Way, previously reported that the sponsor of the bill, Sen. Greg Kirk (R-Americus) admitted during the floor debate that, potentially a group like the Ku Klux Klan could attempt to classify itself as a “faith-based organization” whose views would be protected by law if the bill were to pass.

In a Monday morning press conference, Deal announced he would be working with House leadership to make changes to the bill, prompting the pro-LGBT organization Georgia Unites Against Discrimination to take to Facebook urging its members to lobby both Deal and their representatives to reject the bill as it is currently crafted. The organization has previously warned that the bill would not only sanction anti-LGBT discrimination, but could prompt economic boycotts of Georgia, in the same way that Indiana was targeted last year after passing an anti-LGBT Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com