Same-sex couples in Georgia may now have the freedom to marry, but a pair of proposed religious exemption laws has many Georgians from all walks of life up in arms.
About 150 people, with a coalition of organizations known as Georgia Unites Against Discrimination, rallied at the Georgia State Capitol Tuesday against religious exemptions bills up for debate.
The problem, protesters argue, isn’t so much that these laws are denying LGBTQ couples’ marriage rights, but that the bills are too broad to protect them.
Last Thursday, HB 757, or the "Pastor Protection Act," passed through the Georgia House Judiciary subcommittee. The bill, if it becomes law, will let pastors opt out of marrying same-sex couples without legal consequences.
It may seem this goes against the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage. Technically, it doesn’t. Couples still have the right to wed. It just means this bill would let clergy personally ignore this right.
Another bill testing the limits of religious freedom is SB 129, also called the state’s "First Amendment Defense Act," which was approved for review in January.
The language of the bill is tricky because it is open to broad interpretations. The American Civil Liberties Union warns that the bill lets people and businesses use religion as "a free pass to discriminate."
The Family Research Council — a leading conservative think tank — trusts that the bill is a more sincere move to align Georgia laws with federal laws to better protect people of all faiths from doing anything that sincerely compromises their spiritual practice.
Could this lead to "Kim Davis" scenarios, where state employees use their religion to deny same-sex couples marriage licenses, now with protection by Georgia law? Can landlords in the state use religion to evict LGBTQ tenants? Will businesses be held accountable to hostile work environments for LGBTQ employees?
Maybe. Maybe not.
The bill is just broad enough that it looks and sounds constitutional even if it really isn't, and there's no evidence to prove it isn't.
"Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, this legislation seeks to harm the most vulnerable members of our society — citizens without protections under a state constitution and without legal recourse against discrimination," Rabbi Pamela Gottfried said at Tuesday’s rally, according to the Georgia Voice.
The real problem: LGBTQ couples have the right to marry without adequate anti-discrimination protections
There are a number of reasons to celebrate the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision. At a basic level, why should sexual orientation be the grounds for denying someone the option to put a ring on it with the legal benefits that come along with marriage?
But the decision also has its own legal limits: While same-sex couples can marry in any state they choose — even in states that still try to deny them that right — states can choose to protect these couples from discriminatory attitudes and the repercussions that may follow.
A marriage license doesn't shield someone from being harassed, denied a job, fired, or turned away from public accommodations or equal access to housing — SB 129 makes that abundantly clear.
Here's the national breakdown of anti-discrimination protections in the workplace according to the Human Rights Campaign:
- Twenty states prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
- Two states only prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.
- Six states only prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity for public workers.
- Four states only protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation if you work in the public sector.
So it's not just Georgia. More than half the states in the US offer little to no form of legal protection against discrimination for LGBTQ residents. Even with President Barack Obama's executive order to bar discrimination against LGBTQ federal workers and contractors, a national law to offer those protections has consistently failed to reach a president's desk for the last several decades.
Until then, Georgia's LGBTQ community — and several other states’ communities — are at risk for having their freedoms overridden by laws that protect their opponents’ freedom to do so.