Lightly Amended, the Pastor Protection Act Advances

In a hearing before a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee, HB 757, the Pastor Protection Act was recommended to be sent to the full judiciary committee after it was amended twice, and with a likely third amendment that could be added when the full committee meets.

The subcommittee heard from two witnesses, Jeff Graham of Georgia Equality and UGA doctoral candidate Anthony M. Kreis, in addition to bill sponsor Rep. Kevin Tanner of Dawsonville. Tanner said that while he believes pastors and other religious officials can’t be forced to perform ceremonies that violate their religious principles, he had gotten calls from pastors and other church officials concerned that there was no specific law outside the first amendment that would protect a pastor or their church.

After pointing out that there was no similar law protecting the rights of those in the LGBT community, Graham, of Georgia Equality, expressed concern that section 3 of the bill, which deals with the use of property owned by a religious organization, might condone discrimination, especially if church property was used for commercial purposes. This was also an issue for Kreis, who thought that there might be a problem relating to the Fair Housing Act if a religious organization rented homes or apartments it owned. Rep. Barry Fleming of Harlem also expressed concern about the section, especially if a church took government money to run a halfway house or food pantry.

At the conclusion of witness testimony Rep. Andy Welch of McDonough offered an amendment that clarified that pastors did not have to perform marriage “rites or sacraments” to the first section of the bill. Another amendment, offered by Chairman Wendell Willard of Sandy Springs, addressed the second section of the bill, which deals with businesses being required to operate on the rest days of Saturday or Sunday. Willard’s concern dealt with businesses such as ambulance services or trash collectors that might be required by contract to provide services on one or both of the two days. Both amendments passed.

A third amendment, offered by Evans and dealing with the use of church property, was not accepted by the subcommittee. While all of the members appeared to agree that if a religious organization was taking taxpayer dollars to put on a program such as a homeless shelter or food pantry, it should not be able to discriminate in who could benefit from the program, the language in the amendment offered by Evans wasn’t clear enough to reflect this intent. After committee members agreed to hear an improved version of the amendment once it reached the full Judciary Committee, Evans withdrew her amendment, and the subcommittee voted to send the bill on.

Earlier in the day, House Speaker David Ralston briefed reporters on what he expected to happen during the hearing. He was asked about the possibility that the third section of the bill would be amended to address the concerns that Graham and Kreis were expected to bring up during the hearing. Ralston responded, saying “I think those concerns are unfounded. Until I’m convinced that they are valid concerns, I think it’s a well written bill.” The Speaker also hinted that he might attend the full Judiciary Committee meeting. So far, that meeting hasn’t been scheduled.

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Dave Bearse
Dave Bearse

It’s legislation that will linger to the end of the session. Unnecessary, except as a sop concurrent with RFRA being dispatched.