Gov. Nathan Deal brought this round of the battle over religious liberty legislation to an unexpectedly early end Monday, March 28, when he announced that he will veto House Bill 757, the Free Exercise Protection Act.
“Our actions on H.B. 757 are not just about protecting the faith-based community or providing a business-friendly climate for job growth in Georgia. This is about the character of our state and the character of its people,” Deal said at a news conference.
The bill — a compilation of several proposals that had developed the past several years in response to the push for same-sex marriage, legalized nationwide by the Supreme Court last June — had the support of conservative Christian organizations such as the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, which argued that it was necessary to protect people from being forced to act against their First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.
Opponents argued that the bill was nothing less than an effort to mark LGBT people as second-class citizens subject to discrimination and would also open other groups, such as single mothers, divorced people and those having sex out of wedlock, to the denial of services and to discrimination in hiring. Many Atlanta rabbis declared opposition to H.B. 757 or its predecessors the past two legislative sessions; none publicly supported the bill.
The governor had sent mixed signals since the legislation emerged from backroom negotiations Wednesday, March 16, and quickly won approval from the House and Senate on the 37th day of the 40-day legislative session. While insisting that he would not sign anything he thought would allow discrimination in Georgia, he also said he was pleasantly surprised that the General Assembly was able to pass any kind of compromise.
Deal had until May 3 to decide whether to sign the bill, and he had said March 24 that he would try to act quickly. But H.B. 757 already was having an impact on the state: The governor’s office said two economic development prospects dropped Georgia from consideration because of the measure, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of email between that office and House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge).
Companies that have made Georgia a hotbed of film and TV production vowed to abandon the state if H.B. 757 became law. Conventions booked for Atlanta threatened to move. Atlanta’s professional sports teams opposed the bill, and the NFL said the measure could hurt the city’s chances of hosting a Super Bowl. Many high-tech companies declared their opposition to H.B. 757, as did such business organizations as the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the Buckhead Coalition and Georgia Prospers (a consortium including such giants as Delta Air Lines, Google, Home Depot and Coca-Cola).
Deal said he did not appreciate the threats from bill opponents or the insults hurled at him by proponents who feared a veto. “The people of Georgia deserve a leader who will made sound judgments based on solid reasons that are not inflamed by emotion.”
The governor focused on the principles at play. He said that the freedom of religion is best left to the protection of the U.S. Constitution, as Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson recently argued, and that any effort to legislate enhancements to the First Amendment could lead to discrimination through inclusions or omissions, regardless of intentions.
He said that risk is too great to take, especially because “I can find no examples that any of the things this bill seeks to protect us against have ever occurred in Georgia.”
Incidents in other states in which people were punished for not providing services to same-sex weddings resulted from state legislation that doesn’t exist in Georgia, Deal said. That comment does raise doubts about any efforts to enact civil rights or public accommodation legislation in Georgia.
“Georgia is a welcoming state filled with warm, friendly and loving people. Our cities and countryside are populated with people who worship G-d in a myriad of ways and in very diverse settings. Our people work side by side without regard to the color of our skin or the religion we adhere to,” Deal said. “We are working to make life better for our families and our communities. That is the character of Georgia. I intend to do my part to keep it that way.”
The votes for passage March 16 were largely along party lines, with members of Deal’s Republican Party in favor and Democrats opposed, but enough Republicans voted no to prevent the House from overturning the veto if they stand fast. Still, some state senators called for a special session to try to override the veto.
If the veto stands, the religious liberty battle is likely to resume next year with a new General Assembly that is guaranteed to have Republican majorities, based on candidate qualifying for the legislative elections.
“While we are concerned that this legislation will be reintroduced next year, we are confident in the growing number of Georgians who understand that equal rights cannot be afforded only to some,” Rebecca Stapel-Wax, the executive director of SOJOURN: Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity, said in a statement. “There are currently no federal LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws, nor are there any state nondiscrimination laws of any kind. This veto reminds us that LGBTQ people can still be fired in Georgia for being who they are, they can still be denied service for being who they are, and they can still face discrimination in far too many places across the country.”
Business groups thus could face retaliation for their opposition to H.B. 757. An 11th-hour effort in this year’s assembly appeared to be such an effort: A substitute for pending legislation would have subjected businesses to false-advertising lawsuits for not living up to their own nondiscrimination policies.
“If Gov. Deal were honest, he would say that the pressure coming from the corporate elite was overwhelming and that it threatened to cause economic ruin to his state. Even men and women of faith could understand why he would veto the bill,” said Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
The tax breaks that have made Georgia so attractive to entertainment companies also could become a target.
But just as the legislation faced broad criticism, Deal’s veto found wide support.
“The Anti-Defamation League applauds Governor Deal’s decision to be on the right side of history by vetoing House Bill 757,” ADL Southeast Region Director Mark Moskowitz said in a statement. “This unjust legislation would have authorized discrimination against LGBT people and others in the marketplace, as well as in receipt of public and social services. The governor’s decision sends the resounding message that in Georgia government cannot sanction or support discrimination.”
Moskowitz urged the legislature to respond by passing anti-discrimination and hate-crimes legislation next year.
“The governor’s historic veto stands as proof that when a movement of businesses, clergy and concerned constituents come together and speak out against injustice, lawmakers listen,” said Jeff Graham, the executive director of Georgia Unites Against Discrimination. “Today Gov. Deal demonstrated leadership — and set a strong example for lawmakers watching from around the country that discrimination cannot and will not stand.”
SOJOURN joined Georgia Unites, Georgia Equality and the rest of its coalition partners in cheering Deal. “While this is a victory over overt religious discrimination, there are still basic struggles that people have to fight every day, and our work is far from finished,” Stapel-Wax said. “We will continue to partner with Georgia Equality, Georgia Unites and our entire coalition to bring full legal equality to LGBTQ Georgians across the state.”
A coalition rally at the Capitol’s Liberty Plaza at noon Tuesday, April 5, was intended to urge a veto but now will be a celebration of Deal’s decision and a call for inclusive civil rights legislation.
“It is essential to remain vigilant, vote with your conscience in May and November, and keep to the adage that ‘no one is free when others are oppressed,’ ” Stapel-Wax said.