ATLANTA – On Wednesday, March 16, the Georgia General Assembly gave final approval to HB 757, the Free Exercise Protection Act. This bill began as the Pastor Protection Act which was proposed by Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) last summer. Sponsored by Representative Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville), the final bill protects the religious liberties of individuals and faith-based organizations and includes clear, non-discriminatory language.
“This bill is a meaningful compromise that was carefully crafted to protect the rights of all Georgians to worship God with as little interference from government as possible, without any harmful, unintended consequences,” said Speaker David Ralston.
“The Free Exercise Protection Act is the result of a great deal of work and trust between stakeholders from the legislative and executive branches, the faith community, the business community and others.”
House Bill 757 protects the religious liberties of clergy, churches and faith-based organizations, as well as individual citizens by incorporating elements of several religious liberty bills including the Pastor Protection Act, the First Amendment Defense Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The bill also contains clear and distinct language to prevent any discrimination from resulting from this bill as prohibited by federal or state law. Ensuring this law cannot be used to discriminate is important to Georgia’s continued economic growth and prosperity as a global center of trade and commerce.
The bill assures clergy that they will not be required to perform any marriage which violates their faith. HB 757 further protects churches, synagogues and other places of worship as well as religious organizations from being required by state or local government to host an event which violates their religious doctrine. Businesses and employees are also protected from any ordinance which might require them to be open or work on a day of rest (Saturday or Sunday).
Additionally, faith based organizations will not be required to rent, lease, or grant permission for property to be used by another person for purposes which are objectionable to the religious organization. HB 757 also provides that faith based organizations will not be required to provide social, educational, or charitable services that violate that faith based organization’s religious beliefs, or be required to hire persons whose religious beliefs are not in accordance with the faith based organization’s religious beliefs.
Under HB 757, the government cannot substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a law, rule, regulation, ordinance, unless it demonstrates that the burden is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of achieving that interest. Finally, HB 757 waives sovereign immunity to the extent to enforce these rights and protections.
Now that the bill has been approved by the House and the Senate, it goes to Governor Nathan Deal’s desk for his signature or veto. The Governor, by law, has 40 days after the end of the legislative session to consider bills passed this year. This year’s legislation session is scheduled to adjourn on Thursday, March 24.