On March 16, 2016 the Georgia House of Representatives amended the Senate version of HB 757 sending back to the Senate a broad-based religious freedom bill which protects all Georgians from unnecessary government coercion. The current version of HB 757, which passed both the House and Senate, includes the language of the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It also includes protections for clergy, houses of worship, and faith-based ministries which hold to the traditional view of marriage. Language from the Senate version that would protect businesses like Hobby Lobby or a wedding photographer, was stripped out. Also, language was added assuring that this bill would not discrimination based on current federal and state law. This RFRA portion of this bill is very basic protections for which all Georgians should be grateful. The First Amendment protection is limited, but it is an important start in assuring the free exercise of religion. Gov. Deal has until May 3 to sign or veto HB 757.
This bill is now called, The Free Exercise Protection Act. Here are some highlights:
- Ministers and other religious officials cannot be compelled by government to perform marriages and other ceremonies in violation of their beliefs.
- Businesses which operate on Saturday or Sunday shall make all reasonable accommodations for employees whose day of worship is one of those days.
- Faith based organizations qualified as 501(c)(3) exempt religious organizations are not required to: a) lease property to be used for an event which is objectionable to that organization; b) provide services that violate the organization’s sincerely held religious beliefs; or c) hire or retain an employee whose own religious beliefs, lack thereof, or practices are not in accord with the organization’s sincerely held religious beliefs.
- Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion unless it can demonstrate (1) compelling government interest; and (2) the burden is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. Violation may be asserted as a claim or defense in a lawsuit against the government.
- The bill specifically does not permit discrimination on any grounds prohibited by federal or state law, or allow a public officer or employee to fail to perform his or her official duties.