Amended 'religious freedom' bill passes Senate, heads to Gov. Deal

ATLANTA — A controversial religious freedom bill is headed for the governor's desk.

Now the only thing that stands in the way of the long-contested bill becoming law is Gov. Nathan Deal's signature.

Supporters say the bill protects pastors and faith-based organizations.

But others say it will hurt Georgia’s future.

The bill was approved 37-18 in the Senate late Wednesday night.

Supporters say the amended bill strikes a balance between religious freedom and protecting against discrimination.

But critics say this new version headed to Deal's desk is actually worse than those before.

"Anyone who believes in the First Amendment can be pleased with this," said Mike Griffin with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board.

Channel 2 Action News’ camera was on the floor of the state Senate as lawmakers passed the last-minute compromise version of the religious freedom bill.

"There are absolute winners in this debate today. I think we've spread the pain around a little bit," said House Speaker David Ralston.

Supporters say it protects pastors and churches from being compelled to perform same-sex marriages and religious organizations from being forced to serve or employ people at odds with their religious beliefs.

"Georgia is still clinging to the fears of the past," said Jeff Graham with Georgia Equality

Critics argue the bill's revised, broad language makes it worse, allowing discrimination to potentially extend beyond opposition to same-sex marriage.

"It's now on any basis not just on the basis of marriage," Graham said.

The amended bill includes new wording prohibiting it from allowing discrimination already prohibited by state or federal law.

But critics say that's a hollow promise, pointing out right now gays and lesbians are not legally a protected class in Georgia or on the federal level.

"It sends a strong signal that the LGBT community is far from gaining any form of legal recognition and acceptance from their government," Graham said.

Some also say the bill also opens the door to legal challenges of local anti-discrimination laws like one adopted by the city of Atlanta.

"On its face it doesn't overturn that and if there's any other discussion about that I believe it would be in a court," Ralston said

Deal made it clear he won't sign any bill that includes discrimination.

In a statement from the governor's office, it didn't say much about what he thinks about the changes only saying he'll review the bill next month.