The NFL, Georgia's religious-liberty bill and the facts

The NFL has issued a thinly veiled threat not to award a Super Bowl to Atlanta if Gov. Nathan Deal signs the religious-liberty bill that legislators adopted last week . This possibility, to which the bill's opponents have pointed as the kind of damage it would do to Georgia's economy, is instead a perfect example of how debate surrounding the bill has devolved into misinformation, posturing and hypocrisy.

Why? Because the two states that are home to the other cities competing against Atlanta for the 2019 and 2020 games, Florida and Louisiana, already have pretty much the same laws Georgia is considering.

Neither Florida nor Louisiana has attempted to force pastors to perform marriages to which they object, to force religious institutions to rent their property for events to which they object, or to force businesses to be open on days their owners consider to be days of rest -- the least controversial parts of Georgia's House Bill 757 .

Neither of those states has attempted to allow religious exceptions to employment law beyond what federal law already allows -- and nor does Georgia, since HB 757 specifically says it does not supersede "the Constitution of this state or the United States or federal law" on the matter.

Both Florida and Louisiana have adopted the language from the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which HB 757 includes. Unlike HB 757, neither Florida's RFRA nor Louisiana's includes a provision acknowledging it does not override federal and state anti-discrimination laws.

Like Atlanta, the Super Bowl-finalist cities of Miami, New Orleans and Tampa have local ordinances prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Like Georgia, Florida's and Louisiana's RFRAs are silent on the matter of local non-discrimination ordinances. Although some of HB 757's critics claim its silence will lead to a court challenge to Atlanta's ordinance, that has not happened in those other cities. There is no reason to think, based on the judicial history of other states , that a challenge to Atlanta's ordinance would be successful.

Like Georgia, neither Florida nor Louisiana recognizes LGBT individuals as a protected class. So the claim that RFRAs in other states aren't comparable because they are accompanied by civil-rights protections just isn't true in those cases. Like Georgia, Florida and Louisiana have no LGBT anti-discrimination laws regarding employment, housing or public accommodations . Nor does either of those states have an LGBT anti-discrimination law regarding adoption .

For that matter, neither does the state in which next year's Super Bowl will be held, Texas. What's more, voters in that host city, Houston, last year repealed the city's anti-discrimination ordinance in a campaign that famously was fueled in large part by the slogan "No men in women's bathrooms." How did the NFL respond to that controversy? It said it would keep the 2017 game there anyway.

In fact, the history of the Super Bowl since 1997 -- when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the federal RFRA did not apply to state and local governments -- shows the vast majority of the games have been played in (or awarded to, in the case of the 2017 and 2018 games) states with similar laws on the questions of religious liberty and LGBT rights:

  • Fourteen out of the 21 were, or will be, played in states that by statute or court precedent use the "strict scrutiny" legal standard set by RFRA. The seven exceptions include the 2002 game in New Orleans, before Louisiana passed its RFRA, and the 2012 game in Indianapolis, before Indiana passed its RFRA.
  • Twelve of the 21 have no LGBT non-discrimination laws regarding employment; another four have laws affecting only public employees.
  • Sixteen of the 21 have no LGBT non-discrimination laws regarding housing.
  • Sixteen of the 21 have no LGBT non-discrimination laws regarding public accommodations.

The point here is not whether such non-discrimination laws are good or bad; as I've said repeatedly, I have no interest in perpetrating discrimination and instead would prefer  something that accommodates both sides. The point is the NFL is being utterly hypocritical in taking this stand regarding Georgia when it has declined to do so in states with similar laws. So are any number of companies and trade associations suggesting they may move some operations or conventions out of Georgia if Deal signs HB 757.

If it's not discrimination in those states, why is it suddenly discrimination in Georgia? Don't tell me it matters when the law was passed. Words on a page mean the same thing no matter when they become law. If not, and if the context of current events changes their meaning, then why aren't these businesses urging other states to repeal their laws? That context is now different in those places, too.

What we have here, on the whole, is a rush to judgment by multibillion-dollar businesses that ought to know the value of letting emotions subside and facts come to light before making such decisions. That they aren't doing so is a shame.

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield
Kyle Wingfield
Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.