The state of Georgia continues to move to protect the deeply held religious beliefs of its citizens in the ever-changing culture in which we live. While Texas continues to debate new laws protecting Christians from being forced to participate in activities they find morally questionable – Georgia just passed a bill (unanimously) to protect religious officials from being forced to officiate gay weddings.
House Bill 757, or the Pastor Protection Act, ensures that no religious officials will be forced to “perform marriage ceremonies, perform rites, or administer sacraments 4 in violation of their legal right to free exercise of religion.” The bill also serves notice that rights of property owners (who are affiliated with religious organizations) will also be protected “against infringement of religious freedom.”
Here are the two specific sections dealing directly with these aspects of religious freedom:
No minister of the gospel or cleric or religious practitioner ordained or authorized to 16 solemnize marriages, perform rites, or administer sacraments according to the usages of the 17 denomination, when acting in his or her official religious capacity, shall be required to 18 solemnize any marriage, perform any rite, or administer any sacrament in violation of his 19 or her right to free exercise of religion under the Constitution of this state or of the United 20 States.
No religious organization shall be required to rent, lease, or otherwise grant permission 48 for property to be used by another person for an event which is objectionable to such 49 religious organization.
A note: the term “religious organization” used here has a very specific meaning, so this new law will not be exempting every business (even those owned by Christians), but it does exempt particular organizations from being forced to participate in behavior or practices they deem to be immoral.
The legislation is specifically designed to exempt churches, pastors, missionaries and certain religious organization from taking part in gay wedding ceremonies, now that the Supreme Court has foisted the practice upon our nation. This fear of forced participation is not unwarranted. Around the nation florists, bakers, photographers, wedding planners, and even organizers and hosts have been forced by threat of fine and legal punishment to participate. While churches have yet to feel the state pressuring them to participate, the situation is not unprecedented. Throughout Western Europe (in Great Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands and elsewhere), the government forces churches to allow their facilities to be used by homosexual couples getting married, and in Denmark they even force the churches to provide an officiant for the weddings!
While this bill isn’t seen as controversial in the state of Georgia, there were a vocal minority of Republicans who felt the protections did not go far enough. Though House Speaker David Ralston (R-GA) felt that the criticism was unwarranted, “I sometimes find myself worrying that the idea of focusing on that which unites us instead of that which divides us is becoming old fashioned and dated. And I think that’s regrettable. This bill shows that starting where there is agreement and mutual trust can be much more productive rather than spinning into what seems to be a bottomless chasm,” Ralston argued.
This bill is a positive step forward, but more protections for citizens with deeply held religious beliefs must be guaranteed. The First Amendment isn’t just a defense for pastors and religious professionals; it’s a defense for every American. We all deserve the opportunity to freely believe as we see fit, so long as our beliefs are not infringing on the rights of others. The state of Georgia has taken a good first step, but there is still more work to be done here.