Religious liberty bill passes Georgia state legislature

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'Religious Freedom' Bill Passes Georgia Senate

ATLANTA, March 16 (Reuters) - A religious freedom bill described by opponents as being discriminatory against same-sex couples passed the Georgia state legislature on Wednesday night in an 11th-hour vote ahead of the session's close.

The legislation, dubbed the Religious Liberty Bill, still has to be signed by Georgia's Republican Governor Nathan Deal to become law. Deal has made clear that he will not sign a bill that allows discrimination, but his office did not immediately respond to request for comment on Wednesday night.

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Similar bills in states like Indiana and Arkansas sparked storms of criticism last year, forcing many lawmakers to retreat from the provisions.

The Georgia bill, reworked several times by lawmakers amid criticism that earlier versions went too far, declares that no pastor can be forced to perform a same-sex wedding.

The bill also grants faith-based organizations - churches, religious schools or associations - the right to reject holding events for people or groups of whom they object. Faith-based groups also could not be forced to hire or retain an employee whose beliefs run counter to the organization's.

Opponents say the bill could be used to deny services and discriminate against same-sex couples.

"The decision by the legislature today was to make an egregious and discriminatory bill even worse," the Human Rights Campaign, which represents the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, said in a statement.

"It's appalling that anti-equality extremists in the legislature are trying to ignore the will of the people of Georgia," it said.

More on how this bill came to pass:

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Religious liberty bill passes Georgia state legislature
State Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, speaks on the House floor in favor of a bill explicitly stating that religious officials donât have to perform same-sex marriages that violate their faith, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, at the Statehouse in Atlanta. Georgia lawmakers approved on Thursday a bill stating that religious officials can refuse to perform gay marriages, their first significant action on a variety of proposals giving same-sex marriage opponents legal exemptions introduced in Georgia and around the country this year. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
State Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, left, is embraced by Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, after a bill Tanner sponsored passed on the House floor explicitly stating that religious officials donât have to perform same-sex marriages that violate their faith, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, at the Statehouse in Atlanta. Georgia lawmakers approved on Thursday a bill stating that religious officials can refuse to perform gay marriages, their first significant action on a variety of proposals giving same-sex marriage opponents legal exemptions introduced in Georgia and around the country this year. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
State Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, second from left, votes with fellow lawmakers on a bill he sponsored explicitly stating that religious officials donât have to perform same-sex marriages that violate their faith, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, at the Statehouse in Atlanta. Georgia lawmakers approved on Thursday a bill stating that religious officials can refuse to perform gay marriages, their first significant action on a variety of proposals giving same-sex marriage opponents legal exemptions introduced in Georgia and around the country this year. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
State Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, left, is congratulated after a bill Tanner sponsored passed on the House floor explicitly stating that religious officials donât have to perform same-sex marriages that violate their faith, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, at the Statehouse in Atlanta. Georgia lawmakers approved on Thursday a bill stating that religious officials can refuse to perform gay marriages, their first significant action on a variety of proposals giving same-sex marriage opponents legal exemptions introduced in Georgia and around the country this year. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
House Speaker David Ralston speaks on the House floor in favor of a bill explicitly stating that religious officials donât have to perform same-sex marriages that violate their faith, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, at the Statehouse in Atlanta. Georgia lawmakers approved on Thursday a bill stating that religious officials can refuse to perform gay marriages, their first significant action on a variety of proposals giving same-sex marriage opponents legal exemptions introduced in Georgia and around the country this year. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
House Speaker David Ralston steps away form the podium after speaking on the House floor in favor of a bill explicitly stating that religious officials donât have to perform same-sex marriages that violate their faith, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, at the Statehouse in Atlanta. Georgia lawmakers approved on Thursday a bill stating that religious officials can refuse to perform gay marriages, their first significant action on a variety of proposals giving same-sex marriage opponents legal exemptions introduced in Georgia and around the country this year. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
State Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, left, is congratulated by Rep. Trey Rhodes, R-Greensboro, after a bill Tanner sponsored passed on the House floor explicitly stating that religious officials donât have to perform same-sex marriages that violate their faith, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, at the Statehouse in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
State Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, left, is embraced by Rep. Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown, after a bill Tanner sponsored passed on the House floor explicitly stating that religious officials donât have to perform same-sex marriages that violate their faith, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, at the Statehouse in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Fellow lawmakers watch as House Speaker David Ralston speaks on the House floor in favor of a bill explicitly stating that religious officials donât have to perform same-sex marriages that violate their faith, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, at the Statehouse in Atlanta. Georgia lawmakers approved on Thursday a bill stating that religious officials can refuse to perform gay marriages, their first significant action on a variety of proposals giving same-sex marriage opponents legal exemptions introduced in Georgia and around the country this year. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
House Speaker David Ralston speaks on the House floor in favor of a bill explicitly stating that religious officials donât have to perform same-sex marriages that violate their faith, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, at the Statehouse in Atlanta. Georgia lawmakers approved on Thursday a bill stating that religious officials can refuse to perform gay marriages, their first significant action on a variety of proposals giving same-sex marriage opponents legal exemptions introduced in Georgia and around the country this year. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
State Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, left, speaks with Rep. Brett Harrell, R-Snellville, on the House floor Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, in Atlanta. Months after the Supreme Court effectively legalized same-sex marriage, Tanner and lawmakers across the U.S. are proposing laws that would give businesses and some public employees the right to refuse service for gay couples based on their religious beliefs. The bills, proposed mostly by Republicans, arenât universally backed in the party and top employers, including Delta Air Lines, Home Depot, Porsche and UPS warn the proposals are unwelcoming and bad for business. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
House Speaker David Ralston speaks on the House floor in favor of a bill explicitly stating that religious officials donât have to perform same-sex marriages that violate their faith, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, at the Statehouse in Atlanta. Georgia lawmakers approved on Thursday a bill stating that religious officials can refuse to perform gay marriages, their first significant action on a variety of proposals giving same-sex marriage opponents legal exemptions introduced in Georgia and around the country this year. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
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Mike Griffin, a lobbyist and spokesman for the Georgia Baptist Convention, applauded the bill's passage. He said that while the bill did not give them everything they wanted, he added: "We feel we've advanced our protection of our First Amendment Right to religious freedom."

"Our rights of religious liberty don't end inside the four walls of a church," he said.

In a late added amendment, the proposed law says that it cannot allow discrimination already prohibited by federal law, which opponents said could nullify some of its provisions.

More than 300 large corporations and small businesses, including Delta Airlines and Coca Cola, have signed a pledge decrying the Georgia legislation and urging the state lawmakers to drop it.

The state legislature is set to wrap up its current legislative session next week. (Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Curtis Skinner and Michael Perry)

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