Conservative groups blast ‘religious liberty’ veto in Georgia

A coalition of conservative and religious groups in Georgia on Tuesday blasted Gov. Nathan Deal's veto of a "religious liberty" bill this week, saying he had turned his back on the state's faith community and sold out to Hollywood.

“What this says to me is Governor Deal is out of touch with the people of this state,” said Tanya Ditty, the state director of Concerned Women for America, who was joined by leaders of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, the Georgia Baptist Mission Board and a half dozen other organizations to denounce a decision they said was out of step with a majority of Georgians.

Lawmakers and the state’s leaders “are not elected to represent Hollywood values or Wall Street values,” Ditty added. “The voters are tired of political correctness.”

The show of unity among some of the most ardent defenders of House Bill 757 only guarantees the issue will remain in the spotlight through this year's state election season and into January, when the groups vow to again push legislation they said would protect religious viewpoints and prevent discrimination against faith-based groups. The governor's veto also continued to generate response nationally on Tuesday.

This year, for the first time, those that have led the charge for religious liberty legislation, including the state’s Baptist leaders, explicitly linked the effort to same-sex marriage after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that state prohibitions on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.

A poll funded by the groups showed 66 percent of respondents were at least somewhat sure Deal should sign legislation that “provides for pastors and churches to exercise their religious freedoms in their service to their communities,” according to the question in the poll, which the groups released Tuesday. Done by Ohio-based Clout Research, the poll was conducted by telephone last week. It included 811 people, with a plus or minus 3.44 percent margin of error.

The actual bill would have protected the rights of faith-based nonprofit organizations to fire employees because they are gay.

It would have protected those organizations from having to rent or allow its facility to be used for an event it found “objectionable.”

The organizations, which include churches, religious schools and associations, would not have been required to provide social, educational or charitable services that violated a “sincerely held religious belief.”

And the bill said no pastor could be forced to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony and no individual could be forced to attend one.

Additionally, it included much of the language found in the 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.

However, it said that it could not be used to allow “discrimination on any grounds prohibited by federal or state law.”

And it allowed government to enforce the terms of a grant, contract or other agreement with a religious nonprofit that accepted public money.

All those elements represented a compromise in the Legislature, where some lawmakers had pushed to also include protections for business owners who objected to gay marriage.

"We watered down this bill in order to get the governor to sign it," state Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, who is a Baptist pastor, said Tuesday.

Opponents of the bill, however, had predicted Georgia would see a storm over its passage, saying the bill would have written discrimination into state law against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community by faith-based organizations. Leaders of major corporations including Apple, IBM and Intel had called on Deal to veto the measure, and more than 400 businesses, including Google, Hilton Worldwide and Synovus, opposed the bill as it moved through the Legislature.

After the bill's passage earlier this month, Hollywood studios and actors denounced the effort and the National Football League said it threatened Atlanta's attempts to snag a future Super Bowl.

Deal vetoed HB 757 on Monday, saying the bill did not reflect the state's image as home to "warm, friendly and loving people."

“As I’ve said before, I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia, of which my family and I have been a part of for all of our lives,” Deal said Monday.

Within minutes of his announcement, at least one state senator joined a colleague in calling for a special session of the Legislature to override Deal's veto. State Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, said Tuesday that he also supported calling a special session. None of the three, however, are chamber leaders.

A three-fifths vote by each chamber would be required for the General Assembly to call itself into session, and then two-thirds majorities of both the House and Senate would have to vote to override. It's considered unlikely that either effort would get the necessary votes.

National political figures also weighed in Tuesday on Deal’s veto.

Opponents included Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican presidential hopeful.

“It used to be, political parties, we would argue about marginal tax rates, and you could have disagreements about what the level of taxation should be,” Cruz said. “But on religious liberty, on protecting the rights of every American to practice, live according to our faith, live according to our conscience, we all came together. That ought to be a bipartisan commitment, and I was disappointed … to see Governor Deal not defend religious liberty.”

Supporters of Deal’s decision included President Barack Obama.

“The president comes down on the side of fairness and equality and opposing discrimination in all its forms every time,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in Atlanta during the president’s visit to the city. “It’s the president’s strong view that we can take all the necessary steps to protect religious freedom without giving people the approval to discriminate against people because of who they love.”