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By Aaron Gould Sheinin and Kristina Torres
“Religious liberty” has stormed the Georgia Capitol as one of the most contentious issues this legislative session, with no less than seven bills related to the issue under consideration.
With the action only expected to increase in what is an election year for state lawmakers, here’s a scorecard for the major bills, what they mean and who sponsored them.
And for the bills’ chances of passage? Log on to our handy Georgia Legislative Navigator, where we continually update and analyze every bill to tell you its chance of passing.
Senate Bill 129 (Religious Freedom Restoration Act or RFRA)
Sponsor: Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus
What it would do: Assert that government has to show a compelling interest for why its policy should override an individual’s religious freedom, using similar language as federal legislation that Congress passed in 1993 and has since been adopted in more than 20 states.
Why: Supporters cast the legislation as a new line of defense to protect people of any religion from interference.
Why not: Opponents warn it’s a discriminatory end run on the First Amendment that could allow business owners to cite religious beliefs to deny people service — in particular, gays and lesbians.
Senate Bill 284 (First Amendment Defense Act of Georgia or FADA)
Sponsor: Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus
What it would do: Create a religious exemption for Georgia nonprofits that believe “marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.”
Why: “No one wants these organizations to be criminalized because of their beliefs,” Kirk said. “We’re ensuring all Georgians are tolerant of each other’s beliefs.”
Why not: “What this bill says is when you discriminate, no action can be taken against you … while at the same time denying protection for those who might speak up in support of same-sex marriage or sexual activity outside of marriage,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta.
House Bill 756
Sponsor: Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville
What it would do: Allow business owners to cite religious beliefs in refusing goods or services for a “matrimonial ceremony,” clearing the way for private business owners to refuse service to gay couples getting married in Georgia.
Why: It follows conservatives’ outrage after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that state prohibitions on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.
Why not: “HB 756 singles out same-sex couples for harm, and that’s wrong,” said Jeff Graham, the executive director of Georgia Equality.
House Bill 757 (Pastor Protection Act)
Sponsor: Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville
What it would do: Make clear that clergy cannot be forced to perform a same-sex wedding. Championed by House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, the bill is expected to pass the House, although changes are likely.
Why: “In Georgia we’re going to come down clearly on the side of the separation of church and state, and as long as you have constitutional scholars debating among themselves whether this is covered, then I think we need to remove all uncertainty and all doubt,” Ralston said.
Why not: Opposition to the bill has been muted, as most believe the First Amendment already covers the main parts of the bill. A few critics, however, have raised concerns about one section dealing with housing. Ralston’s office has indicated it is open to changes.
House Bill 816
Sponsor: Rep. Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain
What it would do: Allow students to have voluntary prayer in school, before athletic events, ceremonies and more.
Why: Mitchell told WABE that he’s had ministers call and complain that prayer had been removed from schools. “Their mantra is ‘we’ve taken prayer out of the schools and look at all the problems that have come into it,’ ” Mitchell said.
Why not: Opponents say parts of the bill are likely unconstitutional and that it could lead to bullying against students who choose not to take part.
House Bill 837
Sponsor: Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth
What it would do: Essentially says that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 should apply to Georgia and its courts. The U.S. Supreme Court previously ruled that the federal RFRA only applies to federal courts.
Why: Setzler believes his bill is the cleanest, most efficient way of meeting the goal of establishing a state-level religious liberty law by simply copying the federal statute. “HB 837 ensures that Georgians have the same level of protection of their religious rights as do citizens of Washington, D.C., federal military bases, and inmates in our federal and state prisons,” Setzler said.
Why not: There’s been little backlash to Setzler’s bill thus far, except for concerns that it, too, is designed to allow discrimination against gays and lesbians following the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case.
House Bill 870
Sponsor: Rep. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough
What it would do: Bar any school from joining an athletic association that prohibits student athletes from religious expression. It comes after the Georgia High School Association disqualified a high school cross country runner from the state championship last year for wearing a headband with a Bible verse on it.
Why: “We tried to set up meetings to address this, but one thing that I’ve learned is that (the GHSA is) going to do everything they can to avoid us,” Strickland told the website zpolitics.com. “They are forcing us to bring a bill. This is something that could be addressed internally by signing a document, but they refuse to do that, so they’re forcing our hand for whatever reason.”
Why not: The bill will be formally introduced on Monday, so opposition has yet to build.SHARE THIS STORY