February 17, 2016 7:30 AM
Those attending a Tuesday Senate Rules Committee hearing believed it would consider two bills, the Pastor Protection Act, sent over from the House, and the First Amendment Defense Act, sponsored by Senator Greg Kirk of Americus. Instead, what they got was a substitute for the Pastor Protection Act that took the original, and added on many elements of Kirk’s original bill.
The Pastor Protection Act portion survived virtually intact from what was sent over by the House. There were two significant changes made to the First Amendment Defense Act portion from the bill originally filed by Senator Kirk.
The previous version of the bill offered protection from state sanctions for those who recognize marriage as being between a man and a woman in a traditional marriage. That definition led to charges of viewpoint discrimination, since it didn’t offer protections to those who recognize same sex marriage. The new version recognizes marriage as between two people, which could be same-sex or opposite sex. The definition does not offer protection to polygamous relationships.
The previous version of Senator Kirk’s First Amendment Defense Act used a standard definition of “person” used elsewhere in the Georgia code, which could include corporations and business partnerships, including religious organizations. The new version defines person as a natural person only. Its provisions have been modified to include protections for faith-based organizations, which are defined as “any organization or other legal entity whose governing documents or mission statement expressly acknowledges a religious belief or purpose.” The net effect is that individuals and religious organizations can assert a first amendment right of protection, but secular businesses or corporations, ranging from a mom and pop florist to a corporation like Hobby Lobby cannot.
While these changes address some of the concerns expressed about the First Amendment Defense Act, there are likely to be some issues with the bill as it stands. One issue was brought up during Tuesday’s hearing: A church or faith-based organization that accepts funds from the government in order to carry out a program would, according to the bill, be allowed to exclude those who did not agree with that organization’s beliefs regarding marriage, even if one of the conditions for receiving the funding was that the program would be available to all.
The second issue, which was brought up during the discussion of the original bill, deals with the case of a government employee who believes in one of the protected definitions of marriage. The bill provides that a government employee cannot use the First Amendment Defense Act as a reason not to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple. However that person can put up a “I hate gays” sign above his or her desk, and can’t be reprimanded for it.
As debate on the measure drew to a close, Senator Steve Henson of Tucker suggested a delay before the Rules Committee adopted the bill so that it could be properly examined, and if necessary, amendments could be offered. Rather than accepting the Minority Leader’s suggestion, Rules Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga pointed out that amendments could be made on the floor during deliberation by the entire Senate. Due to Senate rules, the bill is not likely to show up on the calendar until Friday at the earliest, providing some time for senators to examine the bill.
Assuming the Senate passes something, it will return to the House. If I am right on parliamentary procedure, the House will disagree with the Senate substitute because the original bill was passed using a structured rule. The ultimate fate of the measure could rest on who Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Governor Casey Cagle appoint to the conference committee, and whether they can figure out how to count to four.