Georgia lawmakers on Thursday approved a bill explicitly stating that religious officials can refuse to perform gay marriages, their first significant action on a variety of proposals creating legal exemptions for same-sex marriage opponents.
Authored by Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, HB 757, known as the Pastor Protection Act, passed unanimously in the state House.
"The Pastor Protection Act is a simple reaffirmation of our bedrock principle of separation of church and state," Tanner said. "It makes clear that Georgia respects and honors the sacred oaths taken by our pastors, priests, rabbis and other clergy and that government has no intention of asking them to violate those oaths."
Supporters of the bill acknowledge that religious leaders already have that protection under the U.S. Constitution, but argue it will reassure them following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling last year legalizing gay marriage.
The court's decision has prompted at least eight bills that would create exemptions for opponents of the marriages in Georgia, one of more than 20 states where lawmakers have introduced such proposals.
"There's pros and cons on both sides," Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said.
The Georgia bill shielding religious officials moved quickly through the House with backing from the chamber's top Republican, House Speaker David Ralston.
"By passing this bill, we will build a fortification in our law to be absolutely certain that the law of this state can never be used to infringe upon or violate that which we hold most sacred," he said.
"There are two approaches that we can take when it comes to issues of great significance like the one we are considering here today. We can draw arbitrary lines in the sand, we can lash out at those who oppose us and remain intractable, or we can seek out common ground and built trust and move forward together."
The bill received little resistance from gay-rights advocates and business leaders who have opposed broader bills.
"I hope that the passage ... will ease the concerns that some have expressed that last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision would threaten the independence of places of worship and the actions of clergy," said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, the leading LGBT rights advocacy group in the state. "I can relate to the fears of discrimination because the LGBT community is not currently protected by any nondiscrimination laws on a state or federal level."
Some Republican lawmakers and evangelical groups criticized Ralston when he questioned the need for other measures, including versions of the federal "Religious Freedom Restoration Act," which failed to pass last year.
Instead, Ralston floated the idea of a law specifically exempting religious leaders from performing weddings.
The bill passed by the House also allows religious institutions to refuse to rent their property for "objectionable" events.
Several conservative House members said the pastor bill didn't go far enough, but all voted in favor of it.
The broader bills would limit government's ability to infringe on religious beliefs without a compelling interest.
Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, is sponsoring one of the broader bills. He said the pastor bill should be the start of a fight for religious freedom.
"This is an important protection," Setzler said. "But friends, we do have to do more. We were elected to protect the rights of all people."
The bill now goes to the state Senate for review.
Staff writer Michele Hester contributed to this story.