Georgia Senate passes religious liberty bill despite LGBTQ discrimination concerns

State Rep. Ed Setzler is the chief sponsor of Senate Bill 180, which is opposed by LGBTQ groups and major business groups. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

A bill that would enhance religious protections in Georgia but which critics say would do so at the expense of LGBTQ people took a major step in becoming law on Thursday.

The Georgia Senate passed Senate Bill 180 — the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act — by a vote of 33-19. The vote occurred on Crossover Day, typically the final day that legislation must pass in the House or Senate to become law by the end of the session in late March.

SB 180 would enhance religious protections by limiting the ability of local and state governments to enforce or pass laws that conflict with religious beliefs.

Supporters of the bill say it mirrors a federal measure signed into law in 1993, and that there should be similar protections for religious people on the state and local levels. Gov. Brian Kemp has long pledged to sign into law a bill that mirrors the federal version.

“All this bill does is it creates a balancing test to weigh a person’s right to practice their faith against government’s legitimate powers to perform its government functions,” said Rep. Ed Setzler, the bill’s chief sponsor, from the Senate floor on Thursday.

“Never have RFRA statutes been used to effectuate and back up invidious discriminations or the parade of horrors you’re going to hear today,” he added.

Republicans have tried and failed to pass such legislation for over a decade — including in 2016, when the legislature passed a religious liberty bill but it was vetoed by Republican then-Gov. Nathan Deal. The bill’s reemergence reflects the rightward shift the Republican Party has taken in recent years.

State Sen. Kim Jackson voiced her opposition to SB 180 in the well of the Georgia Senate on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

‘It doesn’t just affect LGBTQ families, it affects yours

Democratic State Sen. Kim Jackson voiced her opposition to the bill, saying it would negatively impact her family and others. Jackson is a priest, her wife is an imam and they have a child together.

Jackson fears that the passage of the bill will lead to discrimination against them at her child’s daycare, by a physician and at various businesses.

“All because they have a religious objection toward me and my family,” she said.

“This doesn’t just affect my family, it doesn’t just affect LGBTQ families, it affects yours,” she added.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, who announced her impending retirement earlier this week, also spoke out against the bill.

She noted that legislators have tried to pass this bill her entire quarter-century in office.

“No matter how many times it fails or dies in committee or the governor vetoes it, this body just keeps trying,” she said. “This legislation makes Georgia a worse place to live. People want to be free to live their lives and work and play in peace, not potentially encounter discrimination at every corner. But today we are telling LGBTQ people and their families to leave our state.”

Business groups, LGBTQ groups oppose measure

The Senate passed the religious liberty bill despite the opposition of the state’s two largest business groups. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Metro Atlanta Chamber issued a joint statement earlier Thursday urging the legislature not to pass it.

“For decades, Georgia has benefited from a positive working relationship between the business community and our elected leaders to promote our state as a center for global commerce,” the statement said. “Georgia’s stable governance attracts industry and has served our citizens well, and we oppose any efforts, including SB 180, that would undermine the state’s strong reputation we have built together.”

Following the bill’s passage, LGBTQ groups in Georgia and nationally issued statements.

“Georgia is one of only three states with no statewide non-discrimination law,” Georgia Equality said in a statement. “Without having a statewide civil rights law, SB 180 could create a broad license to discriminate on the basis of faith with no necessary protections against discrimination on the basis of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, country of origin, etc.

The group also said similar laws in other states have been used to deny access to preventative services under the Affordable Care Act including contraception, HIV prevention and other preventative services. They said such laws have also been used to discriminate in child welfare and adoptions, marriage-related services, employment and public accommodations.

“This is not a hypothetical — RFRAs are already doing real harm in other states,” they said.

The Human Rights Campaign issued a statement saying SB 180 could lead to LGBTQ Georgians, women, religious minorities and other communities being turned away from a business, denied housing or refused service.

“Religious freedom is already deeply embedded in the U.S. and Georgia constitutions, and it must not be wielded as a weapon to violate the basic civil rights of others,” said HRC Georgia state director Bentley Hudgins. “Lawmakers in the Georgia House of Representatives should quickly reject this discriminatory bill.”

The bill will now go to the House for consideration. This year’s legislative session ends on March 28.