Nathan Deal's advice for 'religious liberty' supporters next year

Georgia's "religious liberty" legislation succumbed to a quiet death on Thursday, but it will surely return in January just in time for election-year politicking.

Gov. Nathan Deal offered some timely advice for lawmakers who seek to revive the legislation for a third try.

First, stick to the language of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. And secondly, make sure to include an anti-discrimination clause.

Legislative infighting over those two elements led to the measure being tabled in the House after it was overwhelmingly adopted in the Senate.

On the first count, Deal said hewing to the federal language would ensure none of the unintended consequences that critics say could arise, such as a legal loophole that could lead to discrimination against gays and lesbians. Supporters, meanwhile, describe it as a much-needed safeguard to protect people from government intrusion.

"As close as a state can stay to the original federal language, the safer you are," said Deal, who voted for the federal legislation while a member of Congress in the 1990s. "It has been interpreted in the courts, so by having that model you narrow some of the arguments about what it does or does not do."

He called the anti-discrimination clause "the most important" addition.

"And that is a delicate thing to do," he said. "There's been so much hyperbole. It's hard to identify what can you say without saying too much, what can you say without saying too little, and what will people read into either version.”

Another benefit from the bill's failure, Deal said, is a year's distance from the uproar over similar bills in Arkansas and Indiana, which led to threats of boycotts, travel bans and international criticism.

"We all understand that this is a difficult issue," said Deal, "and I hope that if and when it comes to my desk in the future it will not have the same kind of divisiveness associated in those two states."

State Sen. Josh McKoon, one of the sponsors of the failed measure, seems to have a different leaning. He said that the Arkansas compromise, which addresses only government actions, bore quite a resemblance to his final draft.

About the Author