The Georgia General Assembly passed an amended “Free Exercise Protection Act” March 16 that now heads to an uncertain fate with the state’s Republican governor.
Capping two years of lobbying efforts by groups including the 1.3-million-member Georgia Baptist Convention, the compromise measure passed by the House and Senate states that pastors cannot be forced to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony if doing so would violate their sincerely held beliefs, nor can anyone be forced to attend one.
It guarantees that no faith-based organization shall be required to rent, lease or otherwise grant permission for property to be used for an event the group finds objectionable. It also allows faith-based organizations to hire and fire based on an employee’s religious beliefs.
It adds language used in the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, allowing the government to infringe on an individual’s religious liberty only for a compelling reason and by the least restrictive means.
It also states that nothing in the law should be construed to permit discrimination on any grounds prohibited by state or federal law.
Gov. Nathan Deal, a member of First Baptist Church in Gainesville, Ga., said previously he would veto any measure that allows discrimination in order to protect people of faith. Pundits say it is unclear if the version that passed the legislature will satisfy those concerns.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT-rights organization, said the bill could undermine local non-discrimination ordinances, permit hospitals to refuse to provide medically necessary care and allow a taxpayer-funded service provider to discriminate by denying a job because of the applicant’s religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.
Corporations including Microsoft, Google, Coca-Cola and Home Depot all have expressed qualms about the bill, saying it would harm the state’s economy.
Moderate and progressive religious leaders opposed an earlier version, calling it unnecessary and warning it could have unintended consequences.
For a time it appeared the measure might be derailed not because of opposition but rather controversy over comments by a supporter.
Georgia Baptist Convention lobbyist Mike Griffin was criticized from the well of the Senate after a March 4 Christian Index article urging pastors not to allow the government to do to them what Hitler did to Germany.
The Georgia Baptist Mission Board responded March 10 saying Griffin’s reference to German history was taken out of context. The statement said Griffin was not comparing Georgia lawmakers to the Nazis, but rather exhorting pastors not to become complacent about government and simply stay out of politics.
The Georgia Baptist Mission Board Executive Committee passed a resolution March 15 affirming “unwavering support” for Griffin’s work in the legislature.
Christian Index Editor Gerald Harris defended his colleague against “attacks and assaults” in an editorial March 11.
“Mike Griffin would be the first to admit his imperfections, but he is a dedicated Christian, a man of deep convictions, a faithful minister of the Gospel, and passionate maintaining the Judeo-Christian foundations upon which this nation was founded,” Harris wrote. “He is on the firing line for our faith and values and deserves our faithful and fervent prayers.”
“Our rights of religious liberty don’t end inside the four walls of a church,” he said.