Casey Cagle: The 'silent majority' backs Georgia's religious liberty bill

The leaders of both legislative chambers signaled in a joint interview Thursday they are ready for a fresh start on the debate over the "religious liberty" legislation that was vetoed by Gov. Nathan Deal this week.

House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle vowed to revive a version of the measure, which would extend legal protections to opponents of same-sex marriage, and said they are heeding the calls of religious conservatives clamoring for more safeguards for faith-based organizations.

The two talked at length about what happened this year - and what's in store next year - in the fight over the measure.

More: Top Georgia legislative leaders: No special session on Georgia's 'religious liberty' veto

Here's the entire Q&A:

Question: What’s next: Will there be a veto session? An attempt at an override next year?

Ralston: “That’s two different questions. I don’t think a veto session is feasible. I think it has the potential to be counterproductive. I am just speaking of me here, the lieutenant governor can speak very eloquently for himself. This has been a discussion that’s been ongoing for two years.

“The House and the Senate worked tirelessly this session to craft something that we thought was a fair and reasonable compromise that addressed many of the concerns that Georgians have. But yet did so in a way that was not discriminatory. I don’t know that starting that discussion over in a special session would resolve the issue. My own view is that we let the dust settle from the session and the smoke clear. Many of us have campaigns to run, and quickly, and we probably have further discussion going forward in trying to find consensus.”

Cagle: “I don’t know of any serious discussion underway regarding a called special session. The General Assembly can call itself back in but it’s a three-fifths vote from both chambers. That’s 34 in the Senate and 108 in the House. If you look at the actual vote count in both chambers, that’s difficult to get to that threshold. Is that very likely? It doesn’t appear to be.

“This bill did undergo a lot of work over the past two years. And I don’t think people really realize the depth of rewrites and careful language that was placed into this bill. I think it was a very good bill. And I stand behind the bill because I believe it is truly equal protection. It truly is equal protection. Unlike those from the extreme left, who want to make this out as a discriminatory bill, I flat out reject that argument. To that point, this issue does not go away. There is still a tremendous amount of emails and correspondence that we’re receiving that is looking for action to be done on this. I, for one, believe very strongly that we do need to ensure that this standard is put in place for the state of Georgia. And I think that more dialogue will occur during the interim, and when we get back into the session by January we will chart a course forward.”

Q: Will there be an effort to try to come back in January with a hashed-out compromise?

Cagle: “This bill was not drafted in a vacuum. The business community was very much at the table throughout this entire process. The Senate, the House and the governor’s office were privy to this discussion. And more times than not we thought we had a consensus to move forward on the bill. It is important to understand this was not a twelfth hour bomb. It was something that we worked on.”

Q: If the governor’s office was involved in the negotiations, do you feel betrayed by him?

Cagle: “I can’t speak for anyone else, I can just speak for myself. We entered into good-faith negotiations in hopes that we could get to a reasonable bill that would reach a consensus with everyone. Obviously we were not able to do that, but it’s not the end of the world. It’s just the beginning of a new chapter.”

Q: Going back to the second part of the first question, is there a potential for an override?

Ralston: “I think that the energy would better be spent on seeing if we could reach a consensus amongst everybody. Although, as the lieutenant governor points out, we spent a lot of time last year on this issue. This was not something we waited until January to tackle. We are discussing it, looking at language, looking at ways we could do this since last spring. The reality is the bill that passed out of the House got 104 votes. I don’t know that the votes would be there to override the veto. My preference would be to come together and focus on the substance of the bill rather than the rhetoric that’s out there - and reach a resolution.”

Cagle: “As a caveat, there were various objections that were put on the table, from the business community and others. One of those were to keep it out of the stream of commerce. They only want this to apply for not-for-profit organizations. That was accomplished. Others want a clause that clearly stated it was anti-discrimination. … If you recall where the bill originally passed the Senate two years ago, where the First Amendment Defense Act originally passed, and where we ended up, it was a much different piece of legislation. Both sides had to compromise significantly to address the issue.

“This again, I want to emphasize: This is something that was vetted for over two years. There were some people who didn’t think it went far enough and some who thought it went too far. Now it’s incumbent upon us to see what we can work out.”

Q: How do you change the bill to reflect the governor’s concerns? Have you looked at any new language?

Ralston: “I haven’t looked at any language since Thursday. I’m hoping that we can do that in the interim. I am interested in a resolution and not having an issue out there in perpetuity. Some people like having an issue more than a solution. I’d rather reach a solution.”

Cagle: “I echo that sentiment. I’m very optimistic that we can get to a place. I think it is also important to note that there are certain entities that are not going to negotiate on this issue. I don’t want to wrap it into the business community, but there are certain organizations with an agenda that are not going to negotiate on this. They have an agenda, and it’s at the expense of the state.”

Q: If you’re going to bring this back up again, how do you counter the concerns of big-name companies threatening to pull out?

Ralston: “I hope that they would take a deep breath and appreciate that what we’re trying to do here is to do fairness, to do what no other state that has tackled this issue in the last few years has done, which is to craft the measure that addresses some real concerns by many Georgians, but doing it in a way that reflects that we are a welcoming state, and that we are a state that prides ourselves on that image as a business friendly state. I don’t think those notions are mutually exclusive.

“I would hope that everybody can take a deep breath and tone down the rhetoric on both sides frankly, and let’s see if we can reach a consensus on a solution. I share some concerns that the issue is just not going away.”

Q: Would you be supportive of a broader anti-discrimination clause?

Ralston: “I don’t want to get into specific language components now. It’s way too premature. We’ll be discussing a lot of ideas, and I don’t want to rule anything in or not.”

Cagle: “Going back to the corporate question, I had a number of CEOs that called me. The first question I asked them is if they read the bill. Sadly enough, none of them could answer the question ‘yes.’ It’s important that people understand that 21 other states already have similar statutes in place. Twenty-one other states. … Has Disney pulled out of those states, has the NFL, has Apple?

“And the other thing that I would say is there’s an element of hypocrisy that’s in the mix in this because the NFL – although we welcome them here to host a super bowl – look at the number of states that have hosted Super Bowls in the pass that had RFRA statutes. They didn’t boycott there. And Disney films all over the world, including areas where homosexuality is against the law, and punishable through brutality. I would suggest people read the bill before they react in the emotional.”

Cagle: “The day after the bill was passed, what happened? Georgia-Pacific announced 600 new jobs in Atlanta. I haven’t seen anyone leave. Every corporation understands that Georgia is the best state to do business in in the nation. And the film industry loves our tax credit.”

Q: With this, and the specter that he could veto campus carry, is there now a more acrimonious relationship with Gov. Deal?

Ralston: “No. I respect Gov. Deal. Being governor carries with it the authority to veto legislation. I don’t question his intentions or motives. I respectfully disagree and I’m disappointed. I really believe that what we were trying to craft something that everybody could agree on. I think at this point in time it would not be accurate to say there’s been any acrimony interjected into our relationship.”

Cagle: “I’ve known the governor – and he’s been a friend – for 20-plus years. He held the same Senate seat that I held. His family and my family have known each other. His wife and my mother were in school together. These are deep relationships. My relationship has not been severed as a result. But it does not change my position or my belief in the fact that this needs to be addressed.”

Q: Do you expect the Legislature to play an even more assertive role, given the possibility of more friction with Deal’s office next year?

Cagle: “I would not say there’s going to be more friction. That’s a very clear statement. But with that being said, you cannot deny there are very, very strong emotions tied specifically to this bill. And unlike vetoing a road project or an innocuous bill, this is something that people have very, very deep and strong feelings around. It clearly does have the potential to create more conflict. And I think our job is to always rise above the conflict in order to put the state’s best interest at stake. It’s our job not to allow things to get derailed, and to make good, steady decisions.”

Ralston: “Look, there is so much more than we agree on than we disagree on. He’s been a great partner and we all take pride in what that partnership has produced in a lot of reform and a lot of change that has resulted in us being designated the number one state in which to do business. Criminal justice. Education. Infrastructure improvement. There’s so much more we agree on than we disagree.

“We also respect that we have our own jobs to do. He has been and is a great governor. I think he respects the lieutenant governor and I – that we have our jobs to do. My first allegiance is to the people of the seventh House district. My second is to the members of the House. As citizen legislators, we’re back in our communities all year. And people come by to see us and they call us and they stop us in the supermarket or at church or at civic clubs or little league games because they have access to us. They can voice their frustrations and concerns. And our members are responsive to that. … I know that the governor, having been a member of the Senate, understands we’re the voice of Georgians.

Cagle: “And that voice is very diverse, as the speaker says. … We have to be very, very mindful. I’m like the Speaker – my first priority is people of the state and then secondly the members of the senate. Balancing all of those interests is difficult.”

Q: Do you worry the veto will impact the May 24 primaries, the November election?

Cagle: “The electorate seems to be more motivated than they’ve seemed in a long time. For me, the week after the session, and traveling a little around the state, this has been undoubtedly the biggest issue brought forward. And it’s been very consistent. I’ve seen the silent majority waking up, and this is one of the issues that has awakened them. The electorate will be more engaged this time.”

Ralston: “I think that’s been true before the veto. ... People are energized. And that was true before this."

Q: Lt. Gov., do you worry that your support for religious liberty legislation has forever strained your ties to the business groups, like the Metro Atlanta Chamber, if you run for governor?

Cagle: “Any speculation on what my future holds would be premature. That’s first and foremost. And secondly I have always, if you looked at my career, I’ve been an independent minded individual. I believe very strongly in being a pro-business conservative.

“I also believe very strongly in a person’s First Amendment right in the free exercise of religion. There has to be a delicate balance. Business and the individuals. I think, I believe then and I believe now this created the right balance. And over time we will stay at the table and continue to work.

“But we’re not seeking to alienate anyone within the business community. One thing I’ll be very clear on, though: I do have a deep belief in protecting our First Amendment rights. And we should not compromise on that issue. I have always been strong on that issue, and I’ll continue to be strong on it.”

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.