Georgia ‘religious liberty’ opponents say they learned from fight

Opponents of a Georgia “religious liberty” bill won a major victory last week when Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the controversial legislation, but they say a bruising battle over the legislation has taught them a lesson:

“We’ll have to be even more vigilant and more proactive than ever,” said Robbie Medwed, with the Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity. “Discrimination is already happening in Georgia. And we’re going to see this bill again next session — there’s no question about that.”

A coalition of local and national groups including Georgia Equality, the Anti-Defamation League and the Human Rights Campaign will hold a rally at noon Tuesday at the Capitol’s Liberty Plaza, a gathering people involved with the groups say is both a “thank you” to Deal and a plea for like-minded supporters to stay united over the legislative off-season.

It may be a sign of things to come. Some of the most vocal adversaries of House Bill 757, including those in the business community, said Georgians should expect a much more visible presence by those who opposed the legislation on grounds that it would legalize discrimination — particularly against the state’s gay community.

“We’re pleased with Governor Deal’s leadership on this issue, and the plan moving forward is to remain diligent in recruiting more companies to join the Georgia Prospers coalition to help relay the message of an open, inclusive businesses environment in the state,” said Ronnie Chance, a former state Senate majority leader who now heads the coalition of more than 400 businesses including AT&T, Google and Home Depot that publicly campaigned against this year’s legislation.

Deal vetoed HB 757, saying the bill did not reflect the state’s image as home to “warm, friendly and loving people.” The bill he rejected was a fusion of several different religious liberty ideas and would have, among other things, protected faith-based groups’ ability to fire employees because they are gay and prevented anyone from being forced to attend a gay wedding.

Conservatives and some religious groups in Georgia, however, have also vowed to keep Deal’s veto in the spotlight through this year’s state election season and into January, when those groups vow to again push legislation they say would protect religious viewpoints and prevent discrimination against faith-based groups, particularly those opposed to same-sex marriage.

For some Georgians, that is a priority. Pamela Wood of Sugar Hill, a strong supporter of the religious liberty bill, said last week that Deal was “punishing” people of faith by making them “less of a priority.”

“We’re becoming more and more a Communist country than we are a freedom country, and he’s just added to that. He has just put another nail in the coffin,” said Wood, who was attending a forum on the issue in Suwanee. “He’s being too politically correct. He’s afraid to say what’s really in his heart. He’s lying to himself.”

Yet many of those who fought the legislation this year say they are not necessarily opposed to writing religious exemptions into law. Instead, they say it needs to be done narrowly, so it would be an exception and not an overly broad rule. They want it to be done in context of anti-discrimination efforts supported by local cities such as Atlanta, which has an ordinance banning discrimination including against those who are gay.

Georgia is also one of only five states without a civil rights law, and some believe enacting such a law should also be part of the conversation.

“This really is an issue that affects everyone,” said Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham, one of most visible leaders at the Capitol for the LGBT community. “At the end of the day, we are really just trying to go about our daily lives the best we can, do our jobs, take care of our families. People don’t have any reason to fear us. We can still gather information and try to see if there isn’t some common ground.”

Staff writer Laura Diaz contributed to this article.