Ga. Senator Proposes ‘More Palatable’ Religious Freedom Bill

At a hearing earlier this week, Rep. Betty Price asked state officials about what’s legally possible in terms of limiting the spread of HIV.
At a hearing earlier this week, Rep. Betty Price asked state officials about what’s legally possible in terms of limiting the spread of HIV.
Credit Brenna Beech / WABE
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A new bill from Republican state Sen. Greg Kirk of Americus would protect public employees who object to same-sex marriage, but at this point even its sponsor said he is uncertain exactly how far those protections will extend throughout Georgia governments.

Kirk said the bill would protect individuals who do not want to issue marriage licenses based on their religious beliefs, but he is not sure whether the bill he plans to make official next week will affect employees who issue death certificates or certain tax benefits.

To describe who the bill would affect, Kirk pointed to the example of county clerk Kim Davis in Kentucky.

He said the bill would mirror the First Amendment Defense Act currently pending in Congress, which was cosponsored by Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson, and David Perdue this past summer.

“It’s dealing with the individual, saying you’ve got this sincerely held religious belief, and you have a right, a first amendment right to express that without fear of repercussion,” Kirk said.

In a phone interview, Kirk said that the bill would not make it harder for same-sex couples to get marriage licenses, LGBT advocates remain wary.

“There are many counties in Georgia that only have one or two clerks,” said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, an LGBT advocacy group. “If they are allowed to refuse to issue marriage licenses it does cause a hardship for the couple.”

Kirk said he is still drafting the legislation and is not sure yet whether the bill would be restricted to marriage licenses. He said it could be tweaked following the Republican Senate Caucus meeting this Thursday in Atlanta.

A broader bill could affect the employees who issue death certificates, or certain tax benefits available to married couples.

Kirk said his bill will be more “palatable” to the business community that has spoken out so strongly against a separate bill, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), pending in the Georgia house that supporters have said would ensure of the free expression of religious beliefs.

Many RFRA supporters have denied that the bill is a response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last summer that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.

Critics of RFRA have said it will allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT individuals.

In the Georgia legislature, bills are often combined, or language from one bill is added to another in order to get them passed. Kirk said he would be open to his being combined with another.