What Will Happen to the Pastor Protection Act?

We often hear about how good legislation is crafted. A legislator comes up with an idea, writes a bill, gets suggestions for improvements in committee, and passes it in one chamber, only to send it to the other side where the process repeats itself. Eventually, one hopes, a bill is perfected and becomes law.

Such was the hoped-for path of the First Amendment Defense Act. When Sen. Greg Kirk of Americus introduced the bill at a January press conference, many found reasons to fault it. There were charges of viewpoint discrimination, and that the bill would allow companies to discriminate against gays and lesbians. And so, the bill was assigned to the Senate Rules Committee.

The effort to pass any sort of religious liberty legislation has been to fashion legislation that religious conservatives, the business community, and the LGBT community could come together on. And, as Sen. Kirk went to improve his bill, he listened to the business community, which wanted a more restrictive definition of ‘person’ than the one used in most legislation. That desire resulted in one of the two major changes in the bill, defining a person as a natural person, and creating a definition of a faith-based organization. The net result was that secular companies were not offered any relief under FADA.

As he presented the substitute bill to the Rules committee on Tuesday, Sen. Kirk made a point of saying the legislation had the endorsement of the business community, specifically the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Chamber. In saying that, he stepped out a bit too far, causing this joint statement to be released by David Raynor at the Georgia Chamber and Katie Kirkpatrick at the Metro Atlanta Chamber:

The Georgia Chamber and the Metro Atlanta Chamber offered language to help improve the bill. We appreciate the author and Senate leadership for considering and including our suggested language. There are still unresolved issues that must be addressed in this bill in addition to the underlying concerns that remain about the potential adverse ramifications for Georgia’s economy, however these changes help move the bill in the right direction.

If the First Amendment Defense Act had gone through the normal process of passing through one chamber and moving to the next, the concerns of the chambers of commerce might have had a chance to be addressed. However, that was not to be the case. The Rules Committee, to which the bill was assigned, merged the revised FADA language with that of the Pastor Protection Act which had already passed the House.

The merged bill will most likely be debated and voted on Friday in the Senate. Multiple sources have said off the record that the bill will be engrossed, making any further debate or improvement impossible. Assuming the bill passes, it gets sent back to the House. Because the bill was passed under a structured rule, the default action, which could be taken without a vote of House members, would be to disagree with the amended bill, sending it back to the Senate. It’s also possible that the bill’s author, Kevin Tanner of Dawsonville, and Speaker David Ralston could agree with the Senate’s changes, and decide to give House members an up or down vote on accepting the measure as sent by the Senate.

If the House accepts the Senate changes, the bill goes to Governor Deal for his signature. If it disagrees, the bill goes to the Senate, which could insist on its version. That would lead to a conference committee which would produce a final version of the bill.

The business community believes there are unresolved issues with the bill. Feedback from the LGBT community over the merged bill has also been negative. Yet, legislators are spending a third year dealing with religious liberty bills, and are growing weary of the amount of time spent on them, and the constant pressure they are under to pass a bill protecting religious beliefs. Rather than facing headlines that the House refused to accept an amended version of its own bill, championed by its Speaker who made a rare appearance the well to support its passage, they could accept the Senate version, perceived warts and all. It’s a gamble, especially because with a short timetable, no one is exactly sure whether the effects of the bill will be benign, or whether there will be a repeat of the turmoil that affected Indiana last year, and Arizona the year before.

What the House will decide to do about the merged bill once it returns is unknown, but it will likely move quickly once it gets the message from the Senate. If there are those who feel that the current version of the bill is unacceptable, now is the time to let House leadership know that the bill should go to conference.

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