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Civil rights bill clears hurdle without group's inclusion

ATLANTA -- Georgia lawmakers backed a bill on Tuesday preventing businesses from discriminating based on race, nationality, religion or sex, after Republicans rejected Democrats' efforts to add gay and transgender people to those protected by the measure.

The change would catch Georgia up to federal standards set by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Georgia is one of five states without a so-called "public accommodation" law.

Rep. Taylor Bennett, a Brookhaven Democrat, tried to amend the bill to also prevent discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, veteran status or disability. But his proposal was altered by Rep. Beth Beskin, an Atlanta Republican, who eliminated all of Bennett's additions except gender.

After Democrats on the committee questioned Beskin about whether she intended to excuse discrimination against other groups, Beskin said local governments can decide to provide protections beyond the proposed bill. Some municipalities, including the city of Atlanta, already have such laws.

"It was what I could do," she said. "And I'm certainly not intending to enlarge any discriminatory actions or rights (of) employers."

A number have states have gone beyond the federal law, preventing discrimination based on marital status, sexual orientation and gender identity in public accommodation laws.

Bennett said he was disappointed that the bill is headed toward a floor vote without protecting more people from discrimination but still called it a "significant step."

"This is something that should have been done a long time ago," he said.

The committee also passed a bill known as the "Pastor Protection Act," stating that religious officials aren't required to perform same-sex marriages. Nothing in state or federal law would require them to perform the ceremonies, but lawmakers said the bill would reassure officials concerned by the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

House Speaker David Ralston, the chamber's top Republican, supports the Pastor Protection Act.

Georgia lawmakers have filed at least eight bills to grant a variety of legal exemptions to religious opponents of same-sex marriage. The push has gay-rights advocates in Georgia on guard; around 200 people held a rally opposing the measures Tuesday outside the state Capitol.

Both bills approved Tuesday now go to the House Rules committee, which determines the daily schedule of bills receiving a full vote on the floor. The bills could receive a vote as soon as Thursday.

Jeff Graham, executive director of the gay-rights advocacy group Georgia Equality, said adding more protected groups to the civil rights bill would solve the broader disagreement between those seeking religious exemptions and the LGBT community.

"We can solve this problem this year for everyone," Graham said. "It's an opportunity for the legislature as a whole to be on the right side of history."