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Speaker David Ralston proposes Pastors Protection Act
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State lawmakers are looking at a proposal that would protect clergy from being required to perform marriage ceremonies that conflict with their religious beliefs.

Speaker of the House David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, announced his support for a Pastor's Protection Act in Georgia during a the House republican Caucus House in Jekyll Island on Saturday.

"We will reinforce our commitment to the separation of church and state as well as reaffirm the right of the clergy to carry out their duties as their religious beliefs, not government, prescribes," Ralston said in a release.

The proposed bill would clarify that state government will not require clergy to perform any marriage ceremony that conflicts with their religious doctrine.

"This is a narrowly-defined and specifically-crafted bill meant to ease the concerns of the faith community in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's decision in Obergefell vs. Hodges," Ralston said.

On June 26, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in the case, immediately enacting legal marriage of any two people in any state, with marriages that were performed in another state being recognized everywhere else.

Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, will sponsor and carry the bill through the House.

Since the Supreme Court ruling, Tanner said he's received dozens of calls from pastors and church leaders in the 9th House district who are concerned about how the decision might affect their ability to choose who they marry, or who they allow to have ceremonies, in their religious facilities.

"The speaker and I have been working for the past couple of weeks on this effort to draft language that would narrowly focus the law, to make it very clear that a pastor or a member of the clergy can base their decision on who to marry or who not to marry on their own personal religious beliefs and practices," he said Monday.

"It's clear that they're protected under the First Amendment, but I think it's important to codify that into the Georgia law."

If the bill is approved as currently written, "no minister of the gospel or cleric or religious practitioner ordained or authorized to solemnize marriages according to the usages of the denomination, when acting in his or her official religious capacity, shall be required to solemnize any marriage in violation of his or her right to free exercise of religion."

The language of the bill, which may change as the proposal moves forward, is similar to language adopted in Texas and currently being discussed in several other states.

Moving forward, Tanner said the next step would be to look at language that would also protect the religious institutions from being forced into providing their facilities for ceremonies.

"In a lot of our churches in this area, the pastor is not in charge of the facility. It may be a board of deacons or someone else that's in charge of that," he said. "The church will have the ability to decide whether someone uses their facilities at their own discretion."

According to Tanner, the bill would send a clear message that the state "is going to protect the sanctity of our religious institutions in that they are able to base their decisions solely on their beliefs, not based on court decisions or based on anything else other than their own beliefs."

The bill will be taken up when the General Assembly reconvenes in January 2016.

Dawson County Probate Judge Jennifer Burt said two couples have submitted applications for same-sex marriages through her office since the ruling.

Those ceremonies were performed at the Dawson County Government Center by a magistrate judge, according to Chief Magistrate Lisa Thurmond.