Protesters hold up signs March 17 at the Georgia Capitol during a rally against a 'religious freedom' in the state Legislature. Lawmakers in Georgia and other states are proposing laws that would give businesses and some public employees the right to refuse service for gay couples based on their religious beliefs.
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Protesters hold up signs March 17 at the Georgia Capitol during a rally against a 'religious freedom' in the state Legislature. Lawmakers in Georgia and other states are proposing laws that would give businesses and some public employees the right to refuse service for gay couples based on their religious beliefs.

Bills offer exemptions for gay-marriage foes

By KATHLEEN FOODY

The Associated Press

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ATLANTA – Months after the U.S. Supreme Court effectively legalized same-sex marriage, lawmakers nationwide are pushing bills that would give businesses and some public employees the right to refuse serving gay couples because of the owners’ or workers’ religious beliefs.

Legislative bills have been proposed in 22 states – mostly by Republicans, though they aren’t universally backed in the GOP. Top employers, including Delta Air Lines, Home Depot, Porsche and UPS in Georgia, warn the proposals are unwelcoming and bad for business.

Even so, Georgia lawmakers have pressed on with a bill to allow business owners to refuse products or services for same-sex couples planning a wedding. Another bill protects state employees who have religious objections to the marriages.

State Rep. Kevin Tanner, a Republican and a sponsor of a bill allowing bakers or other business owners to deny wedding-related services for gay couples, said he’s not sure the measure has enough support to pass this year but called for a “nonemotional argument.”

“I don’t think anyone really fundamentally wants to prohibit the free exercise of religion and the ability of people to raise their children and still be able to make a living just because they have a different belief system than someone who is their customer,” he said.

The odds of passage in other states vary dramatically. Several bills have been filed in states with legislatures dominated by Democrats or with a Democratic governor’s veto standing in the way, such as Virginia. Lawmakers in Tennessee swiftly rejected a measure barring the state from abiding by the high court’s gay marriage decision after legislative analysts projected it could jeopardize $8.5 billion in federal funding.

Elsewhere, the measures have backing from top officials supported by conservative voters demanding a response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In Kentucky – home to Kim Davis, the county clerk jailed when she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because of her religious beliefs – lawmakers have proposed a bill allowing clerks to remove their name from licenses. The bill matches an executive order issued by Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican.

Bills that become law are bound to be challenged in court, legal experts said. But how judges may rule depends on the specific issue.

Courts might rule against exemptions for public employees, said Alexander Volokh, an Emory University law professor. But laws covering private businesses in states without specific civil rights protections for gay residents could stand.

“Private individuals don’t have any constitutional duty to participate in gay marriage,” Volokh said.

States should be looking for ways to protect gay rights and religious belief, said Charles Haynes, founding director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute.

Haynes cited Utah’s 2015 anti-discrimination law backed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and LGBT activists. The law protects LGBT residents from discrimination in housing and employment but makes exemptions for religious organizations and religious speech at work unless it harasses someone.

“This should not be a zero-sum game where everybody wins on one side and everybody loses on the other,” Haynes said.

The divide isn’t new in Georgia. The last two years included discussion of a bill forbidding government from infringing on religious beliefs without a compelling interest. The “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” from state Sen. Josh Mc-
Koon, a Republican, remains in a Georgia House committee, where supporters tabled it last year after the addition of anti-discrimination language they said would gut the bill’s purpose.

McKoon frequently cites a student group accused of violating hazing policies with a foot-washing ceremony on a public college campus and a middle school student denied space at his public school to hold a religious student club. McKoon and other supporters said similar laws in other states never have been used to successfully defend discrimination, such as a baker or florist refusing to provide services for a same-sex wedding.

Gay rights advocates remain concerned the religious freedom bill could act as a shield for such discrimination without a statewide civil rights law. More than 200 Georgia religious leaders opposed to McKoon’s bill bought full-page ads in four newspapers this month that said: “Dangerous. Divisive. Bad for Georgia.”

Georgia’s business community forcefully has opposed the measures. The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce has warned that the state could lose $600 million or more in tourism dollars.

In Indiana, opponents called for boycotts and protests after a religious freedom law passed last year. That provided a real-world example of the risk to Georgia, said Marshall Guest, the Atlanta chamber’s vice president of business climate.

“Indiana was the last state to really take up this issue in a meaningful way,” Guest said. “It’s hard to think we wouldn’t face something similar here in Georgia.”

The Hoosier State might have lost as much as $60 million in hotel profits, tax revenue and other economic benefits when a dozen groups decided against hosting conventions in Indianapolis last year due at least in part to the controversy surrounding the state’s religious objections law.

A document prepared by the tourism group Visit Indy shows that the 12 out-of-state groups were surveyed and all said that the state’s controversial law played a role in their decision to hold their events elsewhere. The document was obtained earlier this week by The Associated Press ahead of its formal release Thursday.

That hasn’t stopped Georgia lawmakers from trying.

State Sen. Greg Kirk, a Republican and a former Southern Baptist minister, said his bill would allow religious adoption agencies, schools and nonprofit groups to refuse same-sex couples. However, government employees would not be exempt from performing duties required of their jobs, including clerks issuing marriage license, but they could not be punished for only believing in marriage between a man and a woman.

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