Gov. Nathan Deal on Thursday issued a powerful biblical appeal against “religious liberty” legislation in the General Assembly and said he would reject any bill that legalizes discrimination.
His statement and those of other legislative leaders, businesses and religious groups have given gay rights supporters confidence that they may soon be able to move from defense to offense in pursuit of expanded legal protections for gays and lesbians in Georgia.
The governor said he is not interested in any bill that “allows discrimination in our state in order to protect people of faith,” and he urged religious conservatives not to feel threatened by the legalization of gay marriage. Asked whether that meant he would reject such legislation, and aide to the Republican governor said he would.
Deal also called on his fellow Republicans pushing for the measure to take a deep breath and “recognize that the world is changing around us.”
Deal has already called on lawmakers to make changes to House Bill 757, which originally said no pastor would be forced to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony. It was amended in the Senate to include provisions that would allow individuals and organizations to deny service to same-sex couples or gays and lesbians if it violates their religious beliefs.
The Senate amendment has led to an outcry from gay rights activists and business leaders. The bill is back before the House, where it could be taken up at any time. Lawmakers have nine days left in this legislative session and next meet Monday.
House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said Thursday that he agrees with the governor.
“Speaker Ralston appreciates and shares Governor Deal’s sincere commitment to protecting religious liberties while ensuring that Georgia continues to welcome everyone with genuine Southern hospitality,” Ralston spokesman Kaleb McMichen said.
Supporters of the bill, however, say it is not intended to legalize discrimination but to prevent government from forcing religious believers to act in a way that violates their deeply held religious beliefs.
Mike Griffin, the head of public affairs for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, said the times are changing, but not everything is.
“God’s word is not changing,” Griffin said. “When it comes to the issue of marriage, while that’s changed, God’s definition has not.”
HB 757, Griffin said, “does not seek to disenfranchise anyone, it doesn’t seek to discriminate against anyone.”
“It protects people of faith from discrimination by the government coercing them into actions that violate their religious beliefs,” Griffin said.
But Deal said his religious faith tells him there are other ways.
“What the New Testament teaches us is that Jesus reached out to those who were considered the outcasts, the ones that did not conform to the religious societies’ view of the world. … We do not have a belief, in my way of looking at religion, that says we have to discriminate against anybody,” he said. “If you were to apply those standards to the teaching of Jesus, I don’t think they fit.”
Deal quoted the Gospel of John that showed Jesus reaching out to an outcast.
“What that says is we have a belief in forgiveness and that we do not have to discriminate unduly against anyone on the basis of our own religious beliefs,” Deal said. “We are not jeopardized, in my opinion, by those who believe differently from us. We are not, in my opinion, put in jeopardy by virtue of those who might hold different beliefs or who may not even agree with what our Supreme Court said the law of the land is on the issue of same-sex marriage. I do not feel threatened by the fact that people who might choose same-sex marriages pursue that route.”
Griffin, however, turned to a different verse from the Bible: Matthew 19: 4-6. “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’[a] 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’[b]? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
The bill, Griffin said, “just narrowly defines this one area of marriage.”
But, as Deal and Ralston, along with powerful businesses such as Delta Air Lines, Home Depot and tech-giant Twitter, have called on Georgia’s leaders to embrace diversity, gay rights activists see an opportunity.
“Governor Deal has powerfully articulated a message of unity for Georgia,” Jenner Wood, chair of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said. “His words will spread far and wide to affirm our reputation as a welcoming state that celebrates both our faith traditions and our diversity.”
Wednesday, after he delivered 75,000 emails calling on the governor to veto HB 757 should it reach his desk, Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham said he is increasingly optimistic.
“Over the last week we’ve seen an outpouring of concern,” he said. “The eyes of the nation are on Georgia. It’s really a pivotal time. (Lawmakers) need to decide if they’re going to cling to the bias and discrimination of the past or keep Georgia an open, fair, hospitable place to live and do business.”
After Deal’s latest comments on Thursday, Graham agreed there are ways to protect those on all sides of the issue.
“A comprehensive civil rights law in Georgia can protect all communities and groups from discrimination and can reinforce our state motto of wisdom, justice and moderation,” Graham said.
Chad Griffin, president of the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign and no relation to Mike Griffin, said it’s time for Georgia to move forward.
“We want to not just kill the bad legislation that hurts Georgians but now move forward with legislation that protects LGBT Georgians,” he said.
A House panel earlier this year rejected a plan to do just that. But a bipartisan group of lawmakers has filed a resolution that would create a House study committee that could spend the months between legislative sessions examining the conundrum from all sides and propose a solution before lawmakers return in January.
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