Supporters of religious exemption bill say debate isn’t over
ATLANTA — Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s plan to veto a “religious freedom” bill has supporters vowing that the issue isn’t going away.
Groups that supported the bill, including the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, plan a news conference Tuesday morning to discuss their next steps.
“We’re not going to quit,” said Mike Griffin, spokesman for the Baptist organization. “We definitely don’t want to have Gov. Deal listening to Wall Street and Hollywood over the citizens of the state of Georgia who expect him to support religious liberty.”
Within days of its passage, Coca-Cola and other big-name Georgia companies joined prominent Hollywood figures urging Deal to reject the proposal. The Walt Disney Co., Marvel Studios and Salesforce.com threatened to take their business elsewhere. The NFL said it would be a factor in choosing whether Atlanta hosts the 2019 or 2020 Super Bowl.
What remains to be seen is whether there’s enough support among lawmakers to call a special session to revisit the proposal this summer or whether it will have to wait until the 2017 legislative session convenes in January.
Sen. Josh McKoon, a Columbus Republican who’s one of the issue’s key supporters, said lawmakers may barely be able to scrape together the votes needed to reconvene at the Capitol this summer. But he said it would be tougher finding the votes necessary to override the governor’s veto.
Lawmakers have already left the Capitol for the year, adjourning Thursday. They would need a three-fifths majority of both houses to ask the governor to convene a special session, and even then, vote totals on the bill suggest they lack the two-thirds vote in both chambers to override his veto.
“It’s more likely we’ll continue this debate for the next nine months and have a bill introduced in January and fight it out again,” McKoon said, adding that he’s willing to author a new bill if necessary.
Deal will remain the state’s top officeholder through two more legislative sessions. He’s term-limited and has said he doesn’t plan to run for political office after leaving the governor’s mansion in 2018.
Republican legislative leaders portrayed the bill that Deal plans to reject as a compromise, developed after years of sparring over the issue.
Neither House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, nor Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle called for a special session Monday. Cagle, who’s considered a top candidate for the GOP governor’s race in 2018, did say the bill struck “the right balance.”
“I’ve always advocated for Georgia’s status as the number one state to do business, but as we move forward I will never lose sight of the importance of an individual’s right to practice their faith,” he said. “This principle will continue to guide my actions going forward.”
The bill enumerated a list of actions that “people of faith” would not have to perform for other people. Clergy could refuse to perform gay marriages; churches and affiliated religious groups could have invoked their faith as a reason to refuse to serve or hire someone. People claiming their religious freedoms have been burdened by state or local laws also could force governments to prove there’s a “compelling” state interest overriding their beliefs.
All but 11 Republicans in the Georgia House and Senate voted in favor; all Democrats voted against it.
Another round of debate won’t be welcome news to companies and economic development groups that resisted this year’s proposal, said Eric Tanenblatt, a GOP strategist who served as chief of staff to former Gov. Sonny Perdue.
“From an economic development standpoint, it was not helpful having news stories across the country talking about this issue in Georgia,” Tanenblatt said. “… If there’s a spirited debate like this again, that will all resurface.”
Georgia’s largest gay-rights advocacy group vowed to push instead for legal protection specific to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents in employment, housing and other services. State law currently offers none, and Georgia Equality’s Executive Director Jeff Graham said Deal’s veto doesn’t end the group’s work.
“While we’re enjoying today’s hard-fought victory, we’ll continue working to ensure every single Georgian is protected from discrimination,” Graham said Monday.