Calls emerge to override Georgia governor’s ‘religious liberty’ veto

Minutes after Gov. Nathan Deal on Monday announced his veto of a”religious liberty” bill, some state lawmakers began calling for colleagues to overturn the governor’s decision.

Special session or not, Deal’s veto of House Bill 757 assures one thing: The debate is not over. From a potential special session this year, to lawmakers’ return in January to the 2018 race for governor, the religious liberty fight will have a prominent place in Georgia for years to come.

Deal, speaking to reporters from his ceremonial office on the Capitol’s second floor, said he could not in good conscience sign the bill into law. But the measure’s backers said he made the wrong choice.

State Sen. Mike Crane, a Newnan Republican running for Congress, said Deal’s announcement Monday “is another example of how the political class is bought and paid for by corporations and lobbyists. Rather than standing up and protecting the First Amendment, the political class would rather sacrifice those rights to keep the money flowing.”

“The fight is not over,” Crane said in a statement on his campaign website, and he called on lawmakers to return to Atlanta for a special session to fight Deal’s veto.

It will not be easy for HB 757’s supporters to reopen the House and Senate chambers that closed for the year on Thursday. Were they to be successful, it would be even more difficult to override Deal’s veto.

There are two ways for lawmakers to meet outside regular session. The governor can order them back — which is unlikely.

The state constitution also says legislators can decide to return on their own if three-fifths of the members of the House and Senate each “certify to the governor in writing … that in their opinion an emergency exists in the affairs of the state.”

That would require 108 members of the House and 34 members of the Senate to call themselves back in. HB 757 received the votes of 104 of the 118 Republican members of the Georgia House and 37 of the 39 Republican members of the Senate.

Crane joins state Sen. Bill Heath, R-Newnan, in calling for a special session, but other supporters of the bill are being more cautious.

State Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus, sponsored a different religious liberty bill that would have allowed individuals and faith-based organizations to deny services to LGBT Georgians. Part of it was added to HB 757.

“I respectfully disagree with Governor Deal’s decision,” Kirk said in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The bill “was a deliberately drawn piece of legislation that did not discriminate against the LGBT and protected the faith community.”

Kirk did not respond when asked whether he supports a special session, and not all Republicans are on board with the idea.

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, who voted against the bill at the request of his brother, who is gay, said he would not vote to return to Atlanta before January.

“I, for one, will not be calling for or support coming back for a special session,” Peake said via Twitter.

State Rep. B.J. Pak, R-Lilburn, who is not running for re-election, was more direct. Calling for a special session to override one non-emergency bill is “one of the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard at the Capitol,” Pak said on Twitter.

Any special session would cost taxpayers about $41,000 a day in per diem paid to state lawmakers, along with any other costs associated with a session, such as printing and staffing.

Crane and Heath are getting some outside help. Erick Erickson, a host on News 95.5 and AM 750 WSB, was promoting a website Monday that allowed users to enter their information and send an automated message to Deal asking him to order lawmakers back to Atlanta this year.

A lack of a special session this year, however, most likely means the issue is front and center when legislators return to normal session in January.

“I fully expect we’ll be back next year debating this again,” state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, told Boston NPR station WBUR via telephone

Meanwhile, Deal’s veto puts him at odds with both House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. Both men issued statements defending the bill. While Ralston said he respected Deal and the thought the governor gave the issue, he said HB 757 included “clear anti-discriminatory language.”

“I believed, and still do, that HB 757 met the test we shared,” he said.

Cagle said lawmakers “worked hard to find the right balance on this most challenging of issues,” and he said Georgia should protect “the right of individuals to practice their faith without government interference.”

A spokesman for Ralston declined to comment when asked whether the speaker supported a special session. Cagle’s spokesman said he was “unaware of any discussions at this time in the Senate, or with the House, about the possibility of a special legislative session.”

One thing that could give the special-session movement more support is if Deal vetoes a separate measure allowing permit holders to carry concealed guns on Georgia’s public college and university campuses. The governor has not indicated how he will act on House Bill 859, although lawmakers ignored his plea for changes after it passed.

The last time there was a major veto war came in 2007, when Gov. Sonny Perdue nixed a midyear budget, including a last-minute $142 million property tax rebate. The House, led by Speaker Glenn Richardson, who pushed the tax cut, voted to override the veto, but the Senate, led by Cagle, didn’t react. A special session loomed to reconsider the midyear budget, which would have likely resuscitated the tax cut debate. But after the session, Perdue undid his veto of the budget but used a line-item veto on the tax cut.

When the next session opened in January 2008, the House voted to override 12 of Perdue’s vetoes from the previous session, but Cagle’s Senate again wouldn’t join in. The Senate agreed to a symbolic override on one minor bill.

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Staff writer James Salzer contributed to this article.