The Georgia Senate passed a religious freedom bill that critics fear could lead to anti-gay discrimination, boycotts and billions of dollars of lost revenue.
The Republican-backed legislation — passed Friday by a 38-14 margin that fell along party lines — is a hybrid of two bills.
The First Amendment Defence Act has received the most criticism of the two. It allows religious organisations to deny services if they cite “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction” against same-sex marriage.
“This bill protects the constitutional rights of individuals and faith-based organisations,” said Republican state Sen. Greg Kirk, chief sponsor of the legislation. “It takes nothing away from same-sex couples or members of the LGBT community.
“It is a live-and-let-live bill.”
However, critics argued the broad language of the bill opens the door for same-sex discrimination, as well as discrimination against people of any orientation who have sex out of wedlock.
“Kirk really thinks that allowing anyone to discriminate against anyone makes the bill fair,” Robbie Medwed, a local gay-rights activist, wrote in a column for Atlanta magazine, Creative Loafing.
Georgia business leaders also criticised the bill, fearing it could lead to costly tourism boycotts and negative publicity. Some also expressed a desire to avoid the type of negative publicity the state of Indiana received when it passed its Religious Freedom Restoration Act last year.
“We believe that treating all Georgians and visitors fairly is essential to maintaining Georgia’s strong brand as the premier home for talented workers, growing businesses, entrepreneurial innovation, and a thriving travel and tourism industry,” the Metro Atlanta Chamber said in a statement.
In response to the bill, a number of major Georgia-based businesses, including Coca-Cola, Delta, Home Depot, UPS and Arby’s, joined the Georgia Prospers coalition earlier this year, promising to promote diversity in their workforces.
The other half of the bill is the so-called “Pastor Protection Act,” which ensures that clergy will not be forced to perform same-sex marriages. The act was met with little objection.
The combined bill will now go the House of Representatives for approval.
On the Senate floor, Democratic state Sen. Nan Orrock urged her colleagues to consider the impact the legislation would have on their constituents.
“Untold numbers of gay, lesbian and transgender people are holding their breath in fear that we will pass this legislation,” she said. “It says to them you’re vulnerable, you’re on your own.”
“I would ask us to search our souls and do the right thing. Be able to tell your grandchildren that you didn’t vote for state-sanctioned discrimination.”
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