Written by Don Byrd
[UPDATE 3/28: Governor Deal announced he would veto the bill.]
[UPDATE 3/18: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports Governor Deal “was ‘pleasantly surprised’ lawmakers hashed out a compromise but emphasized that he faces a hard decision ahead whether to sign it.”]
Despite warning from the state’s Governor and numerous business leaders over concerns regarding the bill, the Georgia legislature last night passed HB 757, the “Free Exercise Protection Act.”
The bill is substantially changed from the version previously passed by the Senate, that both the Governor and Speaker of the House opposed. The new bill combines several separate legislative efforts. Here is a rundown of some of its major elements:
1. Includes language similar to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits government from substantially burdening a person’s religious exercise unless necessary to achieve a compelling government interest. HB 757 further specifies that the RFRA standard cannot be used to allow ” invidious discrimination on any grounds prohibited by federal or state law.”
2. Seeks to protect clergy and houses of worship from being required to solemnize or host wedding ceremonies they object to on religious grounds, so-called “Pastor Protection Act” language, but adds that also no individual can be required to “attend” such a wedding.
3. Protects faith-based organizations from having to allow its facility to be used for any event it finds objectionable, or from having to provide charitable, social, or educational services “that violate such faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious belief.” The measure does, however, allow the government to enforce contracts agreed to by such organizations.
4. States that faith-based organizations cannot be required to hire or retain any employee whose “religious beliefs or practices or lack of either are not in accord with the faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious belief.”
5. Requires businesses that are open on Saturday or Sunday to provide reasonable religious accommodation to employees.
Notably, the amended bill, which you can read here, does not contain language in the previous version prohibiting the government from taking “adverse action against a person or faith-based organization wholly or partially on the basis that such person or faith-based organization believes, speaks, or acts in accordance with a sincerely held religious belief regarding lawful marriage between two people.
HB 757 now heads to Governor Nathan Deal.