Deal on ‘religious liberty’ bill: I’ll ‘make the difficult decision’

Gov. Nathan Deal made his first comments Friday about the controversial “religious liberty” bill that passed the Georgia Legislature and said he would “make the difficult decision on a very difficult subject.”

The governor said he would review the legislation in April “along with anything else that passes” in the final two days of the General Assembly session, which ends Thursday. Deal did not specify his plans. Deal said he would decide in early May whether he would sign or veto the bill, House Bill 757.

“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.”

Supporters of HB 757 say the legislation is necessary to protect religious viewpoints opposing same sex-marriage and prevent discrimination against religious groups. Opponents say it would legalize discrimination in Georgia.

Deal also told Channel 2 Action News that he was “pleasantly surprised” lawmakers “were able to pass something and that some of their opinions were put aside in order to do so.”

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HB 757, sponsored by state Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, and state Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus, would enable faith-based organizations to refuse to rent or allow their facilities to be used for events they consider “objectionable.” The bill would uphold faith-based nonprofit organizations’ ability to fire employees for being gay.

The legislation would exempt churches, religious schools and associations from providing social, educational or charitable services “that violate such faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious beliefs.” At the same time, the bill would give the government power to enforce the terms of a grant or contract.

HB 757 says no member of the clergy could be forced to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony. The bill also says no person could be forced to attend a same-sex wedding.

The bill, which the Legislature approved Wednesday, also says that it could not be used to allow discrimination banned by state or federal law.

Earlier this month, Deal said he was looking for a “compromise” in the “religious liberty” debate. The governor said he believed the “concerns of the faith-based community” could be protected without “allowing or encouraging discrimination.”

Supporters of the bill include the 1.3 million-member Georgia Baptist Mission Board.

Corporate leaders, the Metro Atlanta Chamber and gay rights advocates have lined up against HB 757.

The decision on whether the “religious liberty” bill will be signed into law is now the governor’s to make. He has until 40 days after the end of the legislative session, which would be May 3.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Brant Sanderlin contributed to this article.

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