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Georgia Senate backs exemptions for gay marriage objectors

Georgia Senate backs exemptions for gay marriage objectors
ATLANTA — Georgia’s state Senate approved a bill on Friday allowing faith-based organizations to refuse services to same-sex couples without government penalties, including loss of grants or other taxpayer funding.

Senators voted 38 to 14 on party lines, despite fear about damage to the state’s economy expressed by the state’s influential business community and opposition from gay-rights advocates.

The bill combines a Senate proposal shielding adoption agencies, schools and other faith-based organizations from penalties for opposing same-sex marriage and a House bill allowing religious officials to decline performing the unions.

Sen. Greg Kirk, an Americus Republican, initially proposed the exemption for faith-based organizations as a separate bill titled the “First Amendment Defense Act.”

Senate leadership added Kirk’s measure to the House proposal earlier this week, fast-tracking a floor vote.

Kirk, a former Southern Baptist pastor, said the bill blocks the government from denying or revoking tax status, licenses or state funding based on a faith-based organization’s view of marriage. He said it protects any view of legal marriage between two people, including same-sex marriage, which was effectively legalized last summer by a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

In its example of beliefs that would be protected, however, the bill cites only the view of marriage as that between one man and one woman.

It also states that government employees could not use the law to refuse performing duties of their job, such as a clerk who issues marriage licenses.

“We are not picking sides,” Kirk said. “This bill does not favor one viewpoint over others, which is exactly how government should act with regard to religious beliefs.”

The bill now returns to the House. It’s unclear what action House members will take.

Supporters of the original House bill protecting clergy acknowledged that religious officials already could refuse to perform marriages outside their faith under the U.S. Constitution, but argued that the new measure would reassure people following the Supreme Court’s decision.

As a result, the bill received little resistance from gay-rights advocates or the state’s business community on its way to unanimous approval in the House, aided by support from the chamber’s top Republican Speaker David Ralston.

The Senate’s charged debate lasted nearly four hours, though Republicans used their majority powers to prevent changes to the bill on the chamber floor.

Representatives of the state’s business and tourism industries, including the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and the state’s Hotel and Lodging Association opposed the bill after Senate leadership’s changes.

Intent on avoiding the boycott threats that emerged in Indiana after that state passed a broader “religious freedom” bill in 2015, top Georgia employers, including Home Depot, Delta Air Lines, Porsche and UPS, formed a coalition opposing any legislation that could be considered discriminatory. Hala Moddelmog, president and CEO of the Atlanta chamber, cited that coalition in a letter to senators on Friday standing against the bill.

The hotel association and representatives for InterContinental Hotels Group, Marriott and Hilton Worldwide sent similar messages.

“This legislation jeopardizes the economic future of many hard-working Georgians who serve visitors in hotels, restaurants, stores and attractions across the state,” said Bill Henderson, chairman of the hotel association. “It’s really that simple.”

Democrats also warned that the bill was unconstitutional and that, if signed into law, it would trump local anti-discrimination laws or ordinances. Georgia doesn’t have a statewide civil rights law preventing discrimination. But Republicans maintained that the bill is narrow enough to prevent economic damage.

State Sen. Fran Millar, R-Atlanta, said lawmakers have “let the media define what we’re doing down here” and described a recent phone call from his daughter asking if he’d vote for “that discriminatory bill.”

“The perception is what we make it here,” said Millar, who voted for the bill. “This is about state government, adverse government action. It’s not about discrimination.”

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