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Story highlights

The Senate amended the bill, so it goes back to the House for approval

Critics say the amended bill could lead to discrimination against gays and lesbians

Supporters say it prevents government from persecuting people with strong religious beliefs

(CNN) —  

After lengthy debate, Georgia’s state Senate passed an amended version of a religious freedom bill Friday, sending it back to the House and infuriating critics who slam the revised measure as anti-gay and lesbian.

If the Republican-led House agrees with the Senate version, it will go to Gov. Nathan Deal to sign. If not, it could end up being changed again.

House Bill 757 passed the Senate 38-14 after three hours of debate that was, at times, heated. Last week it passed the House 161-0 – but the Senate version combined it with another more controversial bill.

Now the bill blends the Pastor Protection Act, which would enable religious leaders to refuse to perform same-sex marriages, and the First Amendment Defense Act, which critics have said would allow tax-funded groups to deny services to gays and lesbians.

The bill’s Senate sponsor, Greg Kirk, a Republican, said the revised bill is about equal protection and not discrimination, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“It only impacts the government’s interaction with faith-based organizations or a person who holds faith-based, sincerely held beliefs as it relates to marriage,” he said.

Georgia Unites Against Discrimination called the bill “state-sanctioned discrimination.” On its Facebook page, the organization said the proposed legislation would “allow tax-payer funded organizations to legally discriminate against LGBT Georgians.”

The group has previously said the bill would also hurt single or unmarried parents and people of different religions.

Speaker’s office: This is unusual path for bill

Kaleb McMichen, a spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston, said it is unusual to mesh measures this early in the legislative session.

“This is traveling a little off an unusual route,” McMichen said.

HB 757 was introduced in July and had three purposes:

– It cleared ministers from having to perform marriages that violated their religious beliefs;

– Business owners could remain closed on Saturday or Sunday if working conflicted with their religious beliefs; and

– Religious institutions did not have to rent facilities for ceremonies that violated their beliefs.

“The section (the Senate) added is much broader than the bill we passed,” McMichen said.

The revised legislation now includes Senate Bill 284, which says it would “prohibit discriminatory action against a person who believes, speaks, or acts in accordance with a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such marriage.”

McMichen said he expects the bill to come back to the House on Monday or Tuesday, but noted that Ralston can call for a vote at any time during the session – which is scheduled to end March 24 – or not at all.

He said the speaker was focused on Georgia’s budget on Friday.

If the House votes to disagree with the changes, the bill will go back to the Senate, which has the option of rescinding the changes or not and passing it on to a committee comprising members of both houses.

Other laws and bills

Religious freedom bills across the country have been controversial. Indiana passed legislation last year but after backlash overhauled the law with a follow-up measure intended to ease concerns driven by businesses that it could lead to discrimination.

Pence signs ‘fix’ for religious freedom law

The Indiana law had drawn criticism from major companies like Apple, Walmart and Salesforce, as well as sports associations like the NCAA, NBA and NFL.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a religious freedom measure into law that same week after state lawmakers overhauled their proposal so that it mirrored federal law.

The first-term Republican governor had rejected the first version Arkansas lawmakers had sent to his desk, instead asking for two tweaks so there would be no daylight between his state’s law and the one President Bill Clinton signed in 1993.

There is some form of religious freedom acts in 21 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Another 15 states debated religious freedom bills during 2015 – Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Efforts failed in Montana, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.