Spotlight On: Georgia HB 756, Georgia HB 757 And Representative Tanner’s Misguided Attempts at Religious Freedom

On Wednesday, Representative Kevin Tanner introduced two bills that would sanction discrimination in the name of religion. HB 757 is being sold as a Pastor Protection Act, even though it goes much further than ensuring that the government doesn’t require clergy to perform marriages with which they disagree. HB 756 would allow businesses to refuse same-sex couples and, in an unexpected twist, allow businesses to refuse to serve churches and religious schools.

HB 757

Pastor Protection Acts generally state that the government may not require clergy or houses of worship to perform marriages or host marriage ceremonies that would conflict with their faith. We believe that these bills are unnecessary because the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution already guarantees as much, but we don’t oppose them if the language is actually limited to that purpose.

However, Representative Tanner’s “Pastor Protection Act,” HB 757, actually goes much further than such a bill normally would go. Indeed, only one of its three provisions is actually targeted at marriage ceremonies.

Section one contains standard “Pastor Protection Act” language: it prohibits the government from forcing clergy to perform any marriages with which they have religious objections.

Section two prohibits local governments from requiring businesses to open on Saturdays or Sundays because they are days of rest for many people of faith. Are there local governments that are actually requiring private businesses to open on certain days of the week, let alone the weekend? That seems unlikely. And, what does this have to do with clergy and marriage?

The troubling language appears in section three of the bill. Section three states that “no religious organization shall be required to rent, lease, or otherwise grant permission for property to be used by another person for purposes which are objectionable to such religious organization.” Knowing that this bill is understood to be a “Pastor Protection Act,” it is possible that the bill author intended to extend the protections for clergy (from section one) to houses of worship and similar religious or organizations. But that is not what the bill says.

First, section three applies to all religious organizations, even if they are engaging in commercial activities. There are clear differences between a house of worship that hosts the weddings of its members and wants keep it that way and a religious organization that runs a commercial wedding hall that is open to the public to make money. It seems unfair to allow religious organizations to reap the rewards of a commercial enterprise but then escape the requirements placed on all other commercial businesses.

Second, this provision isn’t limited to weddings and marriages. For example, under this provision, a religious organization that owns an apartment building could refuse to rent to unmarried, LGBT, and interfaith couples or single parents, among others.

Third, this provision isn’t limited to activities funded by the church’s private funds. Say the government funds a religiously affiliated homeless shelter with the understanding that it will house the homeless in its community. That homeless shelter could take those taxpayer funds but then refuse to house certain Georgians in need, such as women, same-sex couples, or single parents.   

HB 756

Representative Tanner’s HB 756 is quite remarkable. Clearly prompted by Obergefell v. Hodges, the recent Supreme Court decision requiring marriage equality, many see this bill as a means of allowing businesses to refuse to provide goods and services for weddings with which they disagree. That is reason enough to oppose this bill.

Few, however, are talking about the other aspects of the bill. Although packaged as a religious freedom bill, its plain language would actually permit Georgia businesses to refuse to provide goods and services to churches and religious schools. No, you did not misread that sentence.

The bill states: “No sole proprietor, partner in a business partnership, or statutory close corporation . . . shall be required to sell goods or services directly to a religious organization.”  The bill defines “religious organization” as “a church, a religious school, an association or convention of churches, a convention mission agency, or an integrated auxiliary of a church or convention or association of churches” that qualifies as a 501(c)(3) organization.

For decades, the goal of civil rights laws have been to prohibit businesses from discriminating against people based on religion. This bill turns that concept on its head, allowing businesses to reject religious customers at the door. The possible results? A restaurant owner could turn away children when he discovers the students are there for lunch as part of their Jewish day-school field trip. Or, a bakery could refuse to sell bread to a customer when it learns that she is buying it for her Lutheran church to use for communion.

Is this really what religious freedom means to Representative Tanner and the other co-sponsors of this bill? I sure hope not.

Let your legislators know that it doesn’t fit your understanding of religious freedom either and track the progress of these and other bills in Georgia and around the country with our new legislation tracker

Follow Maggie Garret online at @maggiefgarrett