Gearing up for next ‘religious liberty’ fight, Georgia business leaders look to Indiana

Credit: Jim Galloway

Credit: Jim Galloway

It's not Halloween yet, but already more than a few state Capitol operatives are looking past Christmas.

Come January, a perfect storm of a political fight will be headed our way: A third battle over gay marriage and “religious liberty” legislation, this time supercharged by a Republican presidential primary.

This week, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz scheduled a November rally around the issue at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. Rivals for the votes of Republican evangelicals — think former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson — will be adopting similar tactics throughout the South.

This piece of the SEC presidential primary included.

Of the GOP field, the Texas senator currently has the strongest grass-roots operation in Georgia. One of Cruz’s biggest fans is state Sen. Josh McKoon of Columbus, whose Senate Bill 129 remains the focal point of the religious liberty debate in the Legislature. It was tabled by a House Judiciary Committee, but it could be revived as soon as lawmakers convene on Jan. 11.

As a conversation piece for visiting GOP presidential candidates, SB 129 may be irresistible — and as far as McKoon is concerned, desirable. “Anything that gets this issue more attention helps move the bill forward,” he said.

The only question is whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to declare bans on gay marriage unconstitutional has quieted the debate.

Nonetheless, the fact that the March 1 presidential primary will occur in the midst of a legislative session hasn’t escaped the notice of SB 129’s opponents — not only gay rights groups, but the state’s business community. The latter may be stepping up its involvement on the issue.

In June, executives with the Metro Atlanta Chamber went to Indianapolis to study the impact of that state’s encounter with religious liberty legislation. In September, Indianapolis Chamber officials came to Atlanta to give metro business leaders a broader briefing on their experience.

On Thursday, in a meeting on the Georgia coast, the policy arm of the Georgia Chamber — in terms of clout, the statewide organization is tops at the Capitol — received a similar backgrounding session.

Just to review, the Indiana Legislature and Georgia’s meet roughly on the same schedule. Last year, while Georgia was debating SB 129, Indiana legislators passed their religious liberty legislation. The state’s governor, Mike Pence, signed it. Days later, in a Sunday interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Pence was asked several times whether the new law permitted discrimination against gays and lesbians. The governor wouldn’t answer.

Threats of a boycott erupted. Hometown businesses threatened to relocate. Industry recruiting prospects shuddered. The NCAA, which is headquartered in the Hoosier State, said it would consider moving Final Four tournaments scheduled there for 2016 and 2021.

Thus only beginneth the lesson, Indianans told Georgia business types. Katie Kirkpatrick, the chief policy officer for the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said Indiana lecturers made three points.

“The economic consequences are real. Social media is a game-changer. And that this issue negatively affects talent recruitment and retention,” Kirkpatrick said.

In the seven days following passage of the Indiana religious liberty bill, capped by Pence’s TV appearance, Indianapolis Chamber officials counted 800 million “negative Twitter impressions,” Kirkpatrick said. More than half used the rallying hashtag “#boycottindiana.”

“Our intent right now is that we can look and learn from Indiana, and the possible consequences that we may face — to ensure that we get this right for Georgia,” Kirkpatrick said.

Chris Clark, the president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber, spoke of the price tag. “In Indiana, they quantified $1.5 billion of negative economic impact since the bill was signed,” Clark said. “They think it might be another year or two before they get a full picture because of other lost opportunities that they didn’t even know they were in the running for — primarily in the convention business.”

During the last session of the Legislature, gay rights activists were quietly critical of Georgia businesses for being too quiet during debate over SB 129. And truth be told, there was business concern that loud public opposition to the religious liberty legislation might jeopardize a transportation sales tax measure.

But Clark dropped a hint that business types might be more vocal next year. The Georgia Chamber leader said his Indiana advisers emphasized the need for early involvement.

“They said they were not ready. They weren’t prepared. They said they should have learned from what happened in Arizona (in 2014),” Clark said. “But they didn’t. They didn’t focus or pay attention to it.”

Clark said he has also conferred with officials in Arkansas, where a religious liberty bill was also signed into law. But under pressure from Wal-Mart and other businesses, state lawmakers added anti-discriminatory language that largely defused an explosive situation.

In Georgia, both business chambers supported adding anti-discrimination language to SB 129 that caused supporters, who said it would gut the legislation, to shelve it for the year.

“We support religious freedom, but we oppose anything that is discriminatory, that promotes discrimination or has the appearance of promoting discrimination,” Clark said. “With the history in our state, and the potential for intolerance, we are going to oppose anything that’s discriminatory.”

This is a point that Clark emphasized. The South has a special relationship with public accommodation laws, which broke the back of segregation in the 1960s.

“With Georgia’s history as it relates to racial issues, good and bad, I think we have to be much more cautious as we go down these roads,” the chamber leader said.

Clark said he intends to meet with McKoon in the next few weeks. “There are some questions that need to be answered by the authors about what the real intent is,” Clark said.

In my conversation with McKoon, the senator confirmed that a tete-a-tete with Clark is in the works. But the Columbus Republican said comparisons that the Georgia and Metro Atlanta chambers are drawing with Indiana “are unfair.”

The Indiana law would have prevented a gay or lesbian from suing a florist who refused to sell them a wedding bouquet. SB 129 wouldn’t, said McKoon, who insists his legislation addresses governmental action only.

Though some supporters have claimed that it would, McKoon says his measure wouldn’t protect conservative Christian businesses that don’t want to provide goods or services to gay couples. Other legislation would be required for that, the senator said.

“The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is a much narrower piece of legislation,” he said. “They’re parts of the same overall issue.”

Oh, to be a fly on the wall at that meeting.