Gov. Nathan Deal will veto ‘religious liberty’ bill in Georgia

Gov. Nathan Deal on Monday vetoed the “religious liberty” bill that triggered a wave of criticism from gay rights groups and business leaders and presented him with one of the most consequential challenges he’s faced since his election to Georgia’s top office.

The move sparked calls from legislators who approved House Bill 757 to overturn the governor’s decision.

In a press conference at the state Capitol, Deal said the bill doesn’t reflect Georgia’s welcoming image as a state full of “warm, friendly and loving people” — and he warned critics that he doesn’t respond well to threats of payback for rejecting the measure.

“Our people work side by side without regard to the color of our skin or the religion we adhere to,” he said. “We are working to make life better for our families and our communities. That is the character of Georgia. I intend to do my part to keep it that way,” he said. “For that reason, I will veto HB 757.”

The two-term Republican has been besieged by all sides over the controversial measure, and his office has received thousands of emails and hundreds of calls on the debate. The tension was amplified by a steady stream of corporate titans who urged him to veto the bill — and threatened to pull investments from Georgia if it became law.

The governor’s planned veto drew instantaneous response from religious conservatives who considered HB 757 their top priority.

State Sen. Mike Crane called Deal’s announcement “another example of how the political class is bought and paid for by corporations and lobbyists.”

“Rather than standing up and protecting the First Amendment, the political class would rather sacrifice those rights to keep the money flowing,” said Crane, a Newnan Republican who is running for Congress.

Lawmakers adjourned for the year Thursday. There are ways, however, they could return to Atlanta before January. The governor can order them back — which is unlikely.

Barring that, the state constitution says legislators can decide to return on their own. Three-fifths of the members of both the House and Senate have to “certify to the governor in writing … that in their opinion an emergency exists in the affairs of the state.”

That would require 108 members of the House and 34 members of the Senate to call themselves back in. HB 757 received the votes of 104 of the 118 Republican members of the Georgia House and of 37 of the 39 Republican members of the Senate.

Crane is not the first GOP lawmaker to call for a special session. State Sen. Bill Heath, R-Newnan, last week said if Deal vetoed the bill, he’d want his colleagues back at the Capitol to consider an override.

But, in a sign of how difficult it would be to override the governor, other lawmakers sent Deal messages of support Monday. State Rep. Beth Beskin, an Atlanta Republican, said via Twitter: “Thank you, Governor Deal, for reaffirming ‘Georgia is a welcoming state’ and vowing to veto HB 757.”

State Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, said much the same: “Thank you for vetoing HB757, @GovernorDeal. You have made the right decision for our time and history will reflect that.”

Religious liberty bills had driven debate over the past three legislative sessions, but supporters in the past session connected it to last year’s Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex weddings galvanized their efforts.

The legislation, which first surfaced on March 16 and passed both Republican-controlled chambers in hours, 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.

It also mirrors language found in the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed by President Bill Clinton and adopted by dozens of states, requiring government to prove a “compelling governmental interest” before it interferes with a person’s exercise of religion. And it includes a clause saying it could not be used to allow discrimination banned by state or federal law.

Seen by supporters as a “compromise” effort, the measure was swiftly condemned by the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the state’s most influential business group, and by leaders of major international tech corporations.

The Human Rights Campaign called on Hollywood film companies to abandon Georgia if Deal signed the measure, and many issued threats that they would. Each of Atlanta’s pro sports franchises criticized the measure, as did the owner of the Atlanta Falcons.

It was far from a one-sided fight, however. The conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition launched robo-calls backing the measure, and the Georgia Baptist Mission Board marshaled its 1.3 million members to rally around the bill. State Sen. Josh McKoon and other prominent supporters cast it as a way to protect faith-based beliefs.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” McKoon, R-Columbus, told WBUR Boston shortly after the veto. “This bill had been significantly watered down. It did not apply to businesses. I’m just very, very disappointed the governor would veto this modest protection for people of faith.”

Still, Deal’s decision to veto the measure did not come as a surprise.

In stark terms, the governor said earlier this year that he would reject any measure that “allows discrimination in our state in order to protect people of faith.” Rooting his critique in biblical language, he urged fellow Republicans to take a deep breath and “recognize that the world is changing around us.”

He is also the rare statewide politician who can afford to infuriate a wide swath of his party’s base. As a term-limited governor with no further political ambitions, he never has to face the voters again.

Yet his decision will likely influence the remainder of his term, which ends in January 2019.

The “religious liberty” debate resonates like few others among the activists that make up the Georgia Republican base — a group that gave the legislation a ringing endorsement at the Georgia GOP’s 2015 convention. He’ll need many of those same rank-and-file Republicans next year when he unveils his plan to “revolutionize” the state’s education system.

The leaders of the two chambers of the General Assembly responded to Deal’s move with disappointment.

House Speaker David Ralston said he knew the decision to veto the bill “was not easy” and that he respected Deal “and the thoughtful consideration he brought to this discussion.”

“I have shared many of the same concerns expressed by Governor Deal,” Ralston said. “That is why I have insisted throughout this entire debate that any measure we passed must not only protect the free exercise of religion and faith-based organizations, but also had to include clear anti-discriminatory language. I believed, and still do, that HB 757 met the test we shared.

“It is regrettable that the merits of this measure have been ignored in the days since its passage by critics who had not taken the time to read the bill or understand the legal issues involved. I take pride in the leadership role the House played in making Georgia the No. 1 state in which to do business. We all aspire to a Georgia which is welcoming, hospitable and growing. At the same time, we have a duty to the Georgians we serve — the Georgians who live, work, play and worship here — to listen to their concerns.”

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who heads the state Senate, said the General Assembly “worked hard to find the right balance on this most challenging of issues.”

“An important and legitimate concern has been largely lost in the hyperbole and criticism surrounding this debate: Our state can and should take an active role in protecting the right of individuals to practice their faith without government interference,” said Cagle, who is considered a contender for governor in the 2018 race. “I’ve always advocated for Georgia’s status as the No. 1 state to do business, but as we move forward, I will never lose sight of the importance of an individual’s right to practice their faith. This principle will continue to guide my actions going forward.”

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