Metro Weekly

Georgia “religious freedom” bill passes through legislature

Business groups urge Gov. Nathan Deal to veto the bill, saying it will otherwise incur an economic backlash

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

The fate of a religious freedom bill that passed through the Georgia legislature this week remains uncertain, with Gov. Nathan Deal (R) having the final say, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.

The Georgia Legislature passed an amended version of what has been called the “Pastor Protection Act.” That bill, which purports to protect religious freedom, goes beyond just protecting clergy from having to perform same-sex marriages — something already protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Instead, the bill has since been expanded to allow individuals or business owners — and not just those that deal with wedding-related industries — to cite a “sincerely held religious belief” as a reason for refusing service to same-sex couples, LGBT people, and others who do not adhere to their preferred sexual mores.

The measure, as further amended (even beyond the changes made by the Senate) and approved by the House of Representatives, would prevent faith-based organizations from being sued or compelled by the government to rent facilities, even those made available to the wider public, for an event it finds “objectionable.” Such a case occurred in New Jersey, where a judge determined that the state’s nondiscrimination law prohibited a Methodist association from refusing to rent the use of their pavilion to a same-sex couple as long as they made it available to other members of the public.

The bill further allows faith-based organizations to fire or refuse to hire 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.” That clause appears to reference a case out of Massachusetts, where an all-girls Catholic school was found to have discriminated against a cafeteria worker who was married to another man. A similar case out of Virginia, currently being litigated before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), involves a director of an assisted living facility for low-income people — operated by the Richmond Catholic Diocese but managed and operated by lay people — who argues he was wrongfully terminated because he is married to his male partner of 30 years.

Lastly, the bill reiterates language from the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, requiring the government to prove a “compelling governmental interest” before interceding or acting on behalf of a person challenging an individual or business from exercising their “freedom of religion.”

But the bill’s passage seems to be flirting with the ire of Georgia’s business community, which largely opposed the bill and has called upon Deal to veto it. As he did after the passage of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act last year, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff issued a statement saying that if Deal signs the bill into law, the company will “reduce investments” in the state, including moving one of its larger tech conferences from Atlanta to another city in a state without such a discriminatory law, Business Insider reports. Other companies, namely the Savannah-based 373K Telecom, have threatened to move their headquarters from Georgia should the bill pass. And the Metro Atlanta Chamber, a major pro-business organization in the state, has warned that the state could experience an economic backlash if it is seen as condoning LGBT discrimination. 

“Corporate leaders in Georgia and across the country have already spoken out against this bill because the First Amendment already protects religious freedom,” Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. “Anything other than a swift veto is only courting an Indiana-style backlash.”

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