NFL: ‘Religious liberty bill’ may kill Super Bowl bid

One day before Georgia state legislators passed the controversial “religious liberty” bill, they united to bring the Super Bowl to Atlanta by granting a $10 million sales tax exemption to fans buying tickets to the game — a tax break NFL officials said was mandatory in securing one of the world’s most lucrative sporting events.

A majority of those same legislators may have dealt Atlanta’s bid for the Super Bowl a hard blow with the passage of a bill that opponents say would memorialize into law discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people.

On Friday, the NFL released a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that said any form of discrimination is inconsistent with its business practices and could affect the awarding of the Super Bowl.

House bill 757, known as the “religious liberty” bill because it allows non-profit faith-based groups with “deeply held religious beliefs” to opt out of marrying, employing and providing services to gay people, was passed by the state legislature Wednesday and now sits on Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk.

“NFL policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote in the statement. “Whether the laws and regulations of a state and local community are consistent with these policies would be one of many factors NFL owners may use to evaluate potential Super Bowl host sites.”

The NFL issued a nearly identical statement in 2014, after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer considered a law that would have allowed businesses to refuse service to gay people due to religious objections. But at that point, the game was scheduled for Glendale in 2015, and the NFL said it was merely monitoring the situation.

However, the league did yank the 1993 Super Bowl away from Tempe after Arizona lawmakers failed to create a holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. Arizona was then awarded the 1996 game after creating the holiday.

The potential loss of an event estimated to generate $400 million in economic activity adds to the mounting pressure on Deal, as he decides whether to sign the legislation. And the NFL’s voice joins a chorus of business, civic and community leaders condemning the legislation.

Deal made his first comments on the bill Friday, during a Forsyth County event. But the governor didn’t tip his hand. He has until May 3 to make a decision, and said that he’ll use all of that time.

“I’ve heard from both sides, and I’m sure I will continue to hear from both sides on the issue,” Deal said. “I’ll take their opinions into consideration.”

Those opinions include condemnations delivered from each of the city’s professional sports teams on Friday.

Falcons’ owner Arthur Blank said that the bill would have “long-lasting negative impacts on our state and the people of Georgia.” Blank’s $1.4 billion downtown stadium is being partially funded with local tax dollars. The NFL has routinely rewarded communities with new stadiums by delivering to them a Super Bowl.

“I strongly believe a diverse, inclusive and welcoming Georgia is critical to our citizens and the millions of visitors coming to enjoy all that our great state has to offer,” Blank said.

The Braves issued a statement saying the bill is “detrimental to our community and bad for Georgia,” and said it would “have a profoundly negative impact on our organization.” The Hawks’ statement references the city’s history during the civil rights movement.

“For generations, Atlanta has stood at the forefront of civil rights and its diversity is what has made this city a cultural leader in the Southeast,” the statement says. “The Hawks strongly believe in the values of inclusion, diversity and equal rights, core principles by which we operate our business and are essential elements in making Atlanta a leading global city.”

Georgia Republican Party Chairman John Padgett has said the party does not believe the bill discriminates. He called it “appropriate, fair and good for Georgia.”

“Under the Gold Dome, Republican leadership and members of the General Assembly have worked tirelessly to craft legislation that protects people of faith without sanctioning discrimination of any kind,” Padget’s statement says. “This compromise bill does just that.”

The bill, which was amended Wednesday after Deal and House Speaker David Ralston objected to the Senate version, says no pastor can be forced to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony, and that no individual can be forced to attend one. It would protect faith-based organizations from having to rent or allow its facilities to be used for an event it finds “objectionable.”

Those organizations, which include churches, religious schools or associations, would not be required to provide social, educational or charitable services “that violate such faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious belief.” Faith-based organizations also could not be forced to hire or retain an employee whose “religious beliefs or practices or lack of either are not in accord with the faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious belief.”

And while the bill says that it can’t be used to allow “discrimination on any grounds prohibited by federal or state law,” it includes much of the language found federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which requires government to prove a “compelling governmental interest” before it interferes with a person’s exercise of religion.

Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, took the lead in passage of the Super Bowl ticket tax exemption. Miller would not comment Friday evening when asked if he was concerned that the religious freedom bill could harm the state’s effort toward landing the big game.

“It would be premature to speculate on what the outcome would be,” Miller said.

Mayor Kasim Reed told the AJC earlier this week that he was “inundated” with calls about the measure from local and national business leaders on Wednesday night. He said they were universally “stunned” that lawmakers would adopt the legislation, given the fallout over a similar proposal in Indiana.

Reed said it would do “terrible harm,” if passed into law.

“I can’t express the amount of damage that is being done to Atlanta and Georgia’s reputation as the business center and cultural center of the Southeast,” said Reed, a Democrat and former state senator.

Reporters Jeff Schultz, Greg Bluestein and Aaron Gould Shenin contributed to this report.

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