The Georgia General Assembly sent religious liberty legislation to Gov. Nathan Deal on Wednesday night, March 16, outraging the LGBT community and its supporters and renewing warnings from the business community of the economic impact if the bill becomes law.

The Free Exercise Protection Act, a completely rewritten version of House Bill 757, came to the House floor with little warning Wednesday afternoon and passed, 104-65, after an hour of debate that largely consisted of self-congratulations on the Republican side and anguish on the Democratic side.

The Senate, which in February added provisions of the proposed First Amendment Defense Act to the original H.B. 757, a measure that reinforced clergy’s First Amendment protection from being forced to officiate at any marriage or other rite, voted 37-18 several hours later to accept the House’s replacement version.

Proponents say the legislation is necessary to protect the rights of free religion and free speech in light of the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage last June. Opponents say the measure establishes lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transsexuals — and perhaps single parents, divorced people and those who have premarital sex, among others — as second-class citizens subject to discrimination from businesses, employers and service providers.

Rabbi Pamela Gottfried says she “cannot sit idly by while my neighbors are threatened.” (Photo by Kevin Madigan)

Rabbi Pamela Gottfried, speaking at a Feb. 9 rally, says she “cannot sit idly by while my neighbors are threatened.” (Photo by Kevin Madigan)

The action March 16 was the culmination of two sessions’ worth of legislative struggle and competing public relations campaigns. Many rabbis have spoken out against the various religious liberty bills.

“The First Amendment and the free exercise of religious beliefs is an essential part of our democracy. It deserves the utmost respect and protection,” Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said in a statement after the passage. “This legislation does just that and protects these freedoms; I applaud the Senate and House for their work on this issue.”

Robbie Medwed, the education director for SOJOURN: Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity, had a far different reaction on Twitter: “I am ashamed to be a Georgian tonight. I am ashamed of my legislature. I am ashamed at their blatant hatred for LGBT people.”

The enacted legislation no longer offers protection to all groups that claim a religious motivation and instead specifies that the faith-based organizations must be recognized as nonprofit religious entities by the Internal Revenue Service. That change addresses concerns about for-profit and hate groups using the legislation as a shield but, by mentioning “religious schools,” could cover universities founded by religious organizations, such as Emory and Mercer, Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur) warned.

The bill has some elements that perhaps reflect a Christian perspective, such as recognition as Saturday and Sunday as days of rest on which businesses may not be forced to operate, excluding Friday night. But that provision follows existing law supporting workers who worship on either of those days.

The legislation also uses “church” in its definition of faith-based organization instead of “house of worship” or a list including synagogues, temples and mosques, but the intent seems clear.

The real issues with the bill involve what those faith-based organizations may do.

Robbie Medwed

Robbie Medwed

The bill says such groups may refuse to let their property be used for an objectionable event, so, for example, Congregation Beth Jacob couldn’t be forced to rent out Heritage Hall for a same-sex marriage. More problematic is the next paragraph: “No faith based organization shall be required to provide social, educational, or charitable services that violate such faith based organization’s sincerely held religious belief as demonstrated by its practice, expression, or clearly articulated tenet of faith.”

So a church-based domestic violence shelter could deny service to someone victimized by a same-sex partner. A Jewish or Catholic school could expel a student who came out as gay. An Episcopal school could ban Muslims.

Those faith-based organizations also are explicitly allowed to fire or refuse employment to people “whose religious beliefs or practices or lack of either are not in accord” with the groups’ beliefs.

What appears to be the most principled line in the bill also could provide the greatest room for trouble because it is so broad: “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a law, rule, regulation, ordinance, or resolution of general applicability,” unless that burden furthers a compelling government interest in the least restrictive means possible.

The breadth of that language would turn the legislation into a jobs program for lawyers, Jones said.

The use of that clause as a defense against a wide range of criminal and civil claims has limits:

  • The measure cites the Georgia Constitution’s ban on using liberty of conscience to excuse licentious acts and practices that endanger peace and safety, as interpreted by Georgia Supreme Court decisions.
  • An elected official could not use religious belief as an excuse not to perform official duties; call this the Kim Davis rule.
  • “Invidious discrimination on any grounds prohibited by federal or state law” is banned.

But as House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D-Atlanta) noted, no federal or state laws ban discrimination against LGBT people, and the bill doesn’t honor local ordinances that do.

Abrams was one of several Democrats who decried the bill on the House floor. Abrams said she was proud that the original H.B. 757, which focused on pastor protection, passed the House with unanimous support, but the version the Senate sent back abandoned the idea of standing together.

Responding to repeated Republican claims that the final legislation represented a balance of competing religious, business and LGBT interests, Abrams said: “We cannot balance discrimination on the backs of those we force to bend.”

Rep. Taylor Bennett (D-Brookhaven) — who was elected last year in a special election to replace Republican Mike Jacobs, whose addition of an anti-discrimination clause effectively killed a religious liberty bill last year — spoke on the House floor for the first time on the 38th of 40 legislative days.

The original H.B. 757 “was a shield for our clergy, a shield we could be proud of,” said Bennett, who noted that his mother is a lesbian. “What we got back today was a sword. … The irony of that is diabolical.”

The longest and most emotional speech came from Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates), who in 2001 became Georgia’s first openly gay legislator. “I don’t think this is balanced. I think it’s unbalanced,” she said. “It says to me, ‘There’s something wrong with you, Karla. There’s something wrong with your family. There’s something wrong with your faith.”

She said she doesn’t demand acceptance, only respect under the law. She said the final version of H.B. 757 replaces mutual respect with discrimination.

“I am not as much of a citizen as my neighbor,” Drenner said. “My neighbor and I are held to different standards. I cannot enjoy the same measure of respect.”

Business organizations that had lobbied against the Senate’s version of the legislation were not pleased with the final measure.

Georgia Prospers, representing 480 businesses, including Google, Home Depot and Coca-Cola, tweeted its disappointment with the passage of the bill.

“This legislation is in conflict with the values of diversity and inclusion that Georgians hold dear and could erode Georgia’s hard-earned status as the No. 1 state for business — and would harm our ability to create and keep jobs that Georgia families depend upon,” the Metro Atlanta Chamber said in a statement. “We agree with Governor Deal that allowing discrimination isn’t a proper reflection of who we are and echo his call for unity and inclusion. We deeply appreciate the Governor’s deliberation on this very important issue, and respectfully ask him to maintain this view while considering this legislation.”

Deal had criticized the Senate version and said he wouldn’t sign legislation that enabled discrimination. After H.B. 757 passed, his office issued a statement that he would give the bill careful consideration when he reviews all legislation awaiting his signature in April.

Georgia Unites Against Discrimination is organizing an email campaign urging Deal to veto the bill.