The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Clarifying clergy’s right of refusal
If the Pastor’s Protection Act I proposed earlier this month seems simple, that’s no accident. My only goal in proposing this legislation is to provide reassurance to the faith community that the separation of church and state is still core to Georgia’s values.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell vs. Hodges changed government’s definition of marriage. While I strongly believe that is a change that should be left to each of the states and elected representatives, that decision is now the law of the land. Whether we agree with it or not, as the governor and attorney general have said, our government will follow the directive of the court.
However, there are many people, particularly pastors, priests, rabbis and other clergy, concerned this decision opens the door for the Supreme Court, or government in general, to intrude into affairs that have historically been the domain of religious leaders.
The Pastor’s Protection Act will make absolutely clear our state government does not view clergy as state actors. Our government will not compel clergy to violate their religious beliefs by performing any marriage that conflicts with their faith.
As speaker of the House and an attorney, I know the First Amendment has historically provided the protection my proposal affords. I would hope the First Amendment will continue to be interpreted as guaranteeing the free exercise of religion.
But the Supreme Court’s recent decision has created unease and uncertainty among many as to government’s role moving forward. I have heard from clergy in my own House district in North Georgia’s mountains that they do not want the federal government intruding on their sacred rights and deeply held re- ligious beliefs.
If the Pastor’s Protection Act seems uncontroversial, that’s also not an accident. We have the opportunity to codify a protection that has widespread support across the political and ideological spectrums. That’s not a bad thing. I understand that can make for rather dull political theater, but I’ll leave the drama for “House of Cards.”
I appreciate the willingness of Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, to sponsor this legislation and carry it in the House. I also thank my colleagues in the House for their support of this proposal.
Some have already expressed an interest in expanding the Pastor’s Protection Act to cover not only clergy but also church facilities and grounds that host marriage ceremonies and celebrations. I think that is a reasonable idea and one worthy of serious consideration as we move forward.
I welcome the input of my fellow legislators and concerned citizens on this measure. I value open, constructive examination of issues that come before the General As- sembly. I am convinced our policies are strengthened — not weakened — by the collective wisdom of those elected to serve Georgians.
We will continue discussing this proposal in the months to come with the goal of having a bill ready on the day the 2016 legislative session convenes. I hope that measure will receive expedited consideration, and that Georgia will join other states in affording clergy this simple, sensible protection.