GOP lawmakers seek exemptions for religious beliefs
Atlanta — – Months after the Supreme Court effectively legalized same-sex marriage, lawmakers across the U.S. are pushing bills that would give businesses and some public employees the right to refuse serving gay couples because of their religious beliefs.
The American Civil Liberties Union opposes such bills and says variations have been proposed in 22 states — mostly by Republicans, though they aren’t universally backed in the GOP. Top employers, including Delta Air Lines, Home Depot, Porsche and UPS in Georgia, warn the proposals are unwelcoming and bad for business.
Even so, Georgia lawmakers have pressed on with a bill to allow business owners to refuse products or services for same-sex couples planning a wedding, and another that protects state employees who have religious objections to the marriages.
Republican state Rep. Kevin Tanner, sponsor of a bill allowing bakers or other business owners to deny wedding-related services for gay couples, said he’s not sure the measure has enough support to pass this year, but called for a “nonemotional argument.”
“I don’t think anyone really fundamentally wants to prohibit the free exercise of religion and the ability of people to raise their children and still be able to make a living just because they have a different belief system than someone who is their customer,” he said.
The odds of passage nationwide vary dramatically. Several bills are filed in states with legislatures dominated by Democrats or with a Democratic governor’s veto standing in the way, such as Virginia. In Tennessee, lawmakers swiftly rejected a measure barring the state from abiding by the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision after legislative analysts projected it could jeopardize $8.5 billion in federal funding.
Elsewhere, the measures have backing from top officials supported by conservative voters demanding a response to the Supreme Court ruling. In Kentucky — home to Kim Davis, the county clerk jailed when she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because of her religious beliefs — lawmakers have proposed a bill allowing clerks to remove their name from licenses. The bill matches an executive order issued by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.
Legal experts said any bills that become law are bound to be challenged in court. But how judges may rule depends on the specific issue.
Alexander Volokh, an Emory University law professor, said courts may rule against exemptions for public employees. But laws covering private businesses in states without specific civil rights protections for gay residents could stand, he said.
“Private individuals don’t have any constitutional duty to participate in gay marriage,” Volokh said.
Charles Haynes, founding director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, said states should be looking for ways to protect gay rights and religious belief, citing Utah’s 2015 anti-discrimination law backed by the Mormon church and LGBT activists. The law protects LGBT residents from discrimination in housing and employment, but makes exemptions for religious organizations and religious speech at work unless it harasses someone.
“This should not be a zero-sum game where everybody wins on one side and everybody loses on the other,” Haynes said.
The divide isn’t new in Georgia. The last two years included discussion of a bill forbidding government from infringing on religious beliefs without a compelling interest. The “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” from Republican state Sen. Josh McKoon remains in a House committee, where supporters tabled it last year following the addition of anti-discrimination language they said would gut the bill’s purpose.
McKoon frequently cites a student group accused of violating hazing policies with a foot-washing ceremony on a public college campus and a middle school student denied space at his public school to hold a religious student club. McKoon and other supporters say similar laws in other states have never been used to successfully defend discrimination, such as a baker or florist refusing to provide services for a same-sex wedding.
Gay rights advocates remain concerned the religious freedom bill could act as a shield for such discrimination without a statewide civil rights law. More than 200 Georgia religious leaders opposed to McKoon’s bill bought full-page ads in four newspapers this month that said: “Dangerous. Divisive. Bad for Georgia.”
Georgia’s business community has forcefully opposed the measures. The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce has warned that the state could lose $600 million or more in tourism dollars.
In Indiana, opponents called for boycotts and protests after a religious freedom law passed last year. That provided a real-world example of the risk to Georgia, said Marshall Guest, vice president of business climate at the Atlanta chamber.
“Indiana was the last state to really take up this issue in a meaningful way,” Guest said. “It’s hard to think we wouldn’t face something similar here in Georgia.”
That hasn’t stopped lawmakers from trying. Georgia Sen. Greg Kirk, a Republican former Southern Baptist minister, said his bill would allow religious adoption agencies, schools and nonprofits to refuse same-sex couples. Government employees would not be exempt from performing duties required of their jobs, including clerks issuing marriage license, but could not be punished for only believing in marriage between a man and a woman.
And the state’s top House Republican has said his priority is passing a bill to ensure religious leaders aren’t required to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.
“I think it’s important that we find a measure that addresses the concerns of Georgians, but also may give us an opportunity to come together and reach some broad agreement on a measure,” House Speaker David Ralston said this month.
Adam Beam, David Lieb, Alan Suderman, and Erik Schelzig, contributed to this report.