As Georgia chases Amazon, a new ‘religious liberty’ debate looms

Georgia’s all-out pursuit of Amazon’s $5 billion second headquarters could intensify the battle the state’s business community has fought for five years with social conservatives over “religious liberty” legislation. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

Georgia’s all-out pursuit of Amazon’s $5 billion second headquarters could intensify the battle the state’s business community has fought for five years with social conservatives over “religious liberty” legislation. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

The Accenture executive was asked an awkward question as he stood next to Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed: Would he be announcing an 800-jobs deal if Georgia had adopted a “religious liberty” bill a year ago?

The executive, Jimmy Etheredge, danced around the issue. “Georgia’s reputation of being business-friendly is a great one,” he said, adding that it helped make Atlanta “an easy decision” for the technology firm’s new innovation hub.

Such is the fraught backdrop of the debate brewing already over controversial legislation that stalled last year, which supporters see as a crucial new layer of legal protection for the faithful and critics call state-sanctioned discrimination.

If the failure to pass religious liberty legislation played such a prominent role in winning Accenture and other jobs deals, then lawmakers and business leaders quake at what a protracted fight next year could mean for the state’s chances of landing the mammoth Amazon headquarters.

They seem bound to be disappointed. Religious liberty supporters say it will be back, and they pledge to sponsor new proposals when lawmakers reconvene in January.

And it remains such a popular initiative among the Republican grass roots that four of the leading GOP candidates for governor have pledged to sign religious liberty legislation if it comes to their desk.

“It’s not going away,” said Brant Frost V, a Newnan activist who sees it as a way to safeguard evangelical Christian business owners from legal action if they refuse to sell to customers based on their religious beliefs.

“We’re going to keep fighting as long as they keep making unprovoked attacks against us,” said Frost, the chairman of the Coweta County GOP. “We’re going to keep fighting back.”

That’s why state leaders won’t pronounce religious liberty DOA even though Deal has already vetoed a version of it — incurring the wrath of his party’s base in the process.

“I don’t want to foreclose any issue,” Deal said, “but I do say there are certain issues that have to be dealt with in a very delicate fashion — or else there will be repercussions.”

A ‘tipping point’?

The battle lines have hardened since religious liberty first emerged as an issue in the Georgia statehouse about five years ago.

Supporters came closest to success in 2016 when both Republican-controlled chambers passed a measure that would allow faith-based organizations to deny services to those who violate their “sincerely held religious belief” and preserve their right to fire employees who aren’t in accord with those beliefs.

Deal's veto of that measure — he said it didn't reflect Georgia's image as a state full of "warm, friendly and loving people" — sent backers scrambling for a Plan B. One version, which failed in the final hours of this year's legislative session, would have allowed some private agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples trying to adopt.

Grass-roots activists have made it one of their most important priorities, and many of the state’s Republican activists passed resolutions at the congressional district level supporting religious liberty legislation over the past two years — and sharply criticized Deal for his veto. Many see it as a way to defend against what they view as a siege on Christian values.

“Most people tend to be so busy in their day-to-day lives they don’t realize how much their freedoms have been eroded in the last 75 years,” said Mike Crane, an ex-state senator and the GOP chairman in the 3rd Congressional District. “We’re at some tipping points. It’s almost to the point where they’re going to criminalize Christian beliefs.”

The opponents, including powerful business boosters and gay rights groups, warn that religious liberty amounts to legalized discrimination and point to executives from dozens of big-name companies, including Apple, Disney and Time Warner, who threatened boycotts if Georgia adopted such legislation.

“The record of job creation hopefully will speak to the issue. Our No. 1 job, Governor Deal’s and mine, aside from keeping people safe, is making sure you have well-paying jobs,” said Reed, an opponent of the religious liberty push.

“We have a record that is almost unparalleled certainly in the last 15 years of doing that,” the mayor added, “and I think that legislation will put that at risk.”

‘Keep it that way’

Georgia’s leaders have reason to be antsy. The state is pulling out all the stops in its bid for Amazon’s second headquarters, a once-in-a-generation sweepstakes for a $5 billion development that could bring a flood of six-figure salaries.

The internet giant is looking for space to expand, a high quality of life, a polished workforce — and a business-friendly and welcoming environment.

“Amazon is a company that has a West Coast culture, and it may be more sensitive to social issues than other corporations,” Kennesaw State University economist Roger Tutterow said. “The concern in some companies is not over whether the company itself is comfortable with the state’s politics, but whether it will be detrimental to recruiting the workforce they want.”

Long before Amazon loomed, the Metro Atlanta Chamber and other business organizations tried to bury the issue, though each year has brought new incarnations.

State Sen. Josh McKoon, perhaps the most outspoken supporter of the religious liberty movement in the General Assembly, said there’s no doubt supporters will make a comeback attempt. The question, he said, is how ardently they’ll press for it in an election-year atmosphere.

Do the candidates who pledged to support religious liberty “really mean it,” he asked, or will they push it back another year, “maybe in time for the Super Bowl in 2019?” McKoon, a candidate for secretary of state, is clear on where he stands.

If “we say we can’t get these jobs to come here unless we make this sacrifice, well then what’s next?” he said. “Is the next argument, ‘Well, it’s too easy to buy a gun in Georgia, so these jobs aren’t going to come so we need to restrict people’s Second Amendment rights?’”

Deal, for his part, said he would try again during the final year he’s in office to negotiate a compromise between the religious conservatives in his party and the pro-business forces.

"We've done a good job in our state and in our Atlanta community of dealing with controversial issues, and we've done so in a way where we've accommodated growth and also accommodated the rights and liberties of our citizens in the process," Deal said.

Then, he added with a smile: “And I hope we can keep it that way.”