Religious Exemption Bills Cause Sharp Divide In Ga. Capitol

A group of religious exemption proposals in the state legislature caused sharp debate in the state Capitol among both religious groups and members of Republican Party on Tuesday.

Standing inside the Capitol Tuesday afternoon, a group of Southern Baptist pastors and supporters called on lawmakers to pass the bills, saying the legislation is necessary to protect the religious freedoms and convictions of Georgians.

The bills have raised concerns about discrimination against the LGBT community in light of the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

“Let me just make this perfectly clear, we have no desire to discriminate against anyone. The concern that I have is that the people of faith in Georgia are being discriminated against and that needs to stop,” said J. Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board.

Standing alongside him were Georgians who said that their religious liberties were infringed upon – including a former Georgia Tech student who filed a free speech lawsuit against the university, and a chaplain who faced criticism for a group baptism after a high school football practice.

The state legislature is considering at least eight proposals addressing religious exemptions, including the “Pastor Protection Act,” which would exempt religious leaders from being required to perform marriage ceremonies they have objections to, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Right after the press conference in support of the bills, another group of religious leaders took the podium to criticize them. Rabbi Joshua Lesser, who leads Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta, said the bills weren’t inclusive.

“These bills, I believe, are just promoting one faith,” he said.

Allen Fox, director of Georgia Republicans for the Future, said the bills harms the Republican Party's brand.
Credit Elly Yu / WABE

A group of young Republicans also spoke out against the bills, saying they hurt the party’s brand.

“Divisive religious exemption legislation creates the perception that the Republican Party supports discrimination," said Allen Fox, director of Georgia Republicans for the Future. 

“It also distracts us from the shared values and legislative priorities that unite us as conservatives,” he said. 

Fox, who used to work in Gov. Nathan Deal's office, said he formed the grassroots group last year to create a space for Republicans to speak out against the legislation he believes will discriminate and to focus on diversity for the party’s future.