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New Religious Freedom Bill Focuses On Ga. Nonprofits

State Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus, speaks on a bill he plans to introduce that provides religious exemptions in the wake of last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, in Atlanta. Kirk says religious adoption agencies, schools and other nonprofits should be able to refuse service to same-sex couples. But Kirk says government employees still would have to carry out duties of their job, including clerks issuing marriage licenses. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
State Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus, speaks on a bill he plans to introduce that provides religious exemptions in the wake of last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, in Atlanta. Kirk says religious adoption agencies, schools and other nonprofits should be able to refuse service to same-sex couples. But Kirk says government employees still would have to carry out duties of their job, including clerks issuing marriage licenses. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Credit David Goldman / Associated Press
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Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus, filed Thursday what he called the “First Amendment Defense Act of Georgia.” Contrary to numerous statements he has made over the past few weeks, Kirk said the bill would not include specific protections to public employees who refuse to perform their duties because they oppose same-sex marriage.

“This is about the fourth or fifth edition of the bill so I’ve listened and I’ve heard what the concerns were,” Kirk said, “and in the end I said, you know what, I think we just need to remove that from the equation, and that’s what I did.”

Despite that change, LGBT advocates say the bill will lead to discrimination. Kirk said he had not spoken directly with any of those groups.

According to Kirk, the bill would protect the tax exempt status of charities and schools that oppose same-sex marriage.

When asked if a religiously affiliated food bank could turn away a LGBT individual, Kirk said he has not heard of any instance when that has happened. But he brought up the example of Catholic adoption agencies, and said they would be protected under the law if they denied services to a same-sex couple.

Kirk said the bill would not affect private companies, unlike a different piece of religious liberty legislation filed in the House by Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, that would allow florists and cake makers to deny services for same-sex weddings.

Kirk was hesitant to show the actual legislation to those in attendance, at a Thursday press conference. At one point, he verbally sparred with a cameraman who wanted to shoot video of the front-page of the bill, which includes the signatures of others Senators who support it.

Kirk didn’t officially file the bill until Thursday evening, after the Capitol had mostly emptied.

He has drawn attention since he delivered the daily prayer to the Senate on Wednesday and announced his plans to file it.

Following the meetings of the Senate throughout the week, groups of legislators huddled together in conversation as Kirk carried the bill with him in search of signatures.

He even walked over to the reporters’ area in the back of the room to make sure recorders were off. Those conversations were private, but they illustrate the Republican party’s challenge in dealing with the issue of religious liberty.

Georgia’s two senators, Republicans Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, are both co-sponsors of a congressional bill that inspired Kirk’s legislation. Isakson says the issue should be handled at the federal level.

“How many issues are we waiting for the feds to make a decision on?” Kirk said. “I think Georgia can take the lead in this.”

Gov. Nathan Deal seemed to advise caution Thursday.

“I understand that many in our religious community, and we are still, of course, in the Bible belt, have real concerns about what they see as an encroachment on their religious beliefs and their patterns of conduct in their businesses, etc,” he said. “We have to be accommodating to their views without making Georgia look like a state that allows discrimination at the sanctions of the state.”

Kirk’s bill brings the number of religious liberty bills in the Georgia legislature to at least four.