How Georgia’s ‘religious liberty’ bill passed: The talks never ended

It’s been four days since Georgia lawmakers passed a controversial “religious liberty” bill, and the torrent of reaction from all sides has shown no sign of ebbing any time soon. In the governor’s office, the phones haven’t stopped ringing.

If legislators wanted to start a brush fire, they’ve succeeded. Major corporate interests and the city’s top professional sports teams have rallied against it, and the National Football League has suggested it could jeopardize Atlanta’s Super Bowl bid. Meanwhile, conservative groups such as the Faith and Freedom Coalition and the 1.3 million-member Georgia Baptist Mission Board have urged supporters to ask Gov. Nathan Deal to sign the bill.

Now, Deal stands nearby, a fire extinguisher in one hand and a gas can in the other. Which one is which is a matter of perspective. But Deal’s decision to sign or veto the bill could have great impact on the state for years to come.

Georgia’s religious conservatives insist the bill is crucial to protect against what they see as the secularization of society, where their faith has been pushed to the edges of everyday life. This year, they explicitly linked the effort to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in June that state prohibitions on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.

At the same time, Georgia has become increasingly urban and increasingly diverse, with cities such as Atlanta welcoming Southern gays and lesbians who have celebrated victories in court as a repudiation of outdated ways of thinking.

Many of the bill’s opponents predicted Georgia would soon face the same kind of backlash and economic crisis that Indiana dealt with in 2015, when businesses and other groups raised enough of a ruckus to force lawmakers there to make changes.

“We’re better than this,” said state Sen. Harold Jones II, D-Augusta. “And the fact of the matter is the same way courts have changed their opinion about interracial marriage, all of this will change. And we’ll all look back at it and laugh at ourselves. At the same time, we are going to ostracize a whole class of people who haven’t done anything but like one set of people.”

Supporters said fears about the bill’s impact were exaggerated, that it wouldn’t, for example, lead to mass firings of gay people by faith-based organizations.

“Georgia is an at-will state for employment,” said state Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus, the bill’s Senate sponsor and a former Baptist minister. “You chose who you’ll hire as an employer. That doesn’t change. Please, quit making false statements about what this bill does. Georgia is leading the nation in dealing with the definition of marriage.”

But on Friday, the NFL released a statement critical of the bill and indicated its passage would factor into Atlanta’s bid for an upcoming Super Bowl. Both Arthur Blank, the owner of the Atlanta Falcons, and the Atlanta Braves slammed the bill, leaving some everyday Georgians wondering why it was even under discussion.

“If this discriminatory bill passes, the economic results will be horrific” said Duluth’s Patricia Davis, who retired from the insurance industry a couple of years ago and is now a volunteer. “There will be no chance to get a Super Bowl, NCAA football championship, Final Four or another NASCAR race. Corporations will not move here or stay here. Young people with good jobs will not live in Georgia. The loss of revenue and jobs will be major.”

Joel Williams from Atlanta, however, is unmoved by the complaints of sports teams and leagues.

“I don’t care how a person chooses to live his or her life,” said Williams, who is a photographer. “I do think it’s un-American for the government to attempt to force people to violate their religious convictions for any reason. My message to Governor Deal is the people’s representatives have passed a bill the majority want. They even amended it once demonstrating good faith compromise, so sign it. None of us should be threatened or bullied into violating our convictions of faith.”

How did this happen?

The first sparks of the fire appeared Wednesday morning as lawmakers prepared to convene for the 38th day of the 40-day legislative session. Word began to spread: The so-called religious liberty bill was on the move.

It wasn’t a huge surprise. Many who roam the halls of the Capitol figured the controversial House Bill 757 would make a return appearance. The only questions were what would it say and what would it do, since both Deal and House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, questioned a previous version from the Senate that would have allowed individuals and faith-based organizations to cite religious beliefs in denying services to gay couples.

Would the most contentious language from the Senate-passed version be included in any compromise? Would the House insist on the anti-discrimination language it inserted into a separate bill last year? Could they possibly thread the needle in a way that satisfied everyone?

The answers: No, no and a resounding no.

“Like any bill, HB 757 is not perfect,” said state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, one of the earliest backers of what has been a nearly three-year fight at the Capitol for religious liberty legislation. “Having said that, I applaud Lieutenant Governor (Casey) Cagle, President Pro Tempore (David) Shafer and our leadership team in securing the passage of what I believe is one of the most robust religious freedom bills passed since the far-left outrage machine began to target people of faith.”

Opponents outside the Capitol’s confines, however, have been left floored.

“My thoughts were, I’m disgusted this bill is even on the table for Governor Deal to sign,” said Brandon George, an Atlanta-based marketing and tech guy for DigitasLBi who, with co-workers, started a satirical website (4agraphicsofgeorgia.com). The site displays 38 — for the number of senators who passed the original bill — fake anti-gay signs. Click on any one of them, and it links to contact information for Deal. “These signs aren’t real,” George said, “but the consequences for Georgia will be.”

‘Nobody was shut out’

Once it began Wednesday, it all happened quickly.

By 3:30 p.m., The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained a copy of the proposed compromise and published it. The House voted to pass the bill at 6:11 p.m. The Senate followed suit exactly two hours later.

News of the votes spread far and wide. National media outlets such as The New York Times, Reuters and CBS News reported the bill’s passage, as did television stations and newspapers across the country.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber, which has warned of economic catastrophe if the bill becomes law, and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce came out against the bill. Corporate giants such as AT&T, Dow Chemical, Intel, Microsoft and Salesforce called on Deal to veto it. Late Friday, the NFL issued a statement that said it emphasizes “tolerance and inclusiveness,” and that when it decides where to award a Super Bowl it considers whether a state and local community mirror those values.

Now, HB 757 sits on Deal’s desk. A governor who has at times embraced the idea of a religious liberty bill but who most recently warned he would not codify discrimination is besieged from all sides. He and his staff must weigh the risks and rewards of signing HB 757 into law as a properly balanced solution to a problem that has vexed lawmakers for years or reject it as a too broadly written plan that could open the door for discrimination and an economic boycott.

The governor has until May 3 to decide. The longer he waits, the louder both sides will become.

According to multiple individuals who were involved in the discussions but were not authorized to speak on the record, the governor knew what was coming. His staffers were in the room during negotiations.

“There were meetings going from the time the Senate passed their bill (Feb. 19) literally until debate started (Wednesday) night,” one person said. “What can it contain, what does the Senate want, what does the House want, the lieutenant governor’s office, the speaker’s office, governor’s office, business community, LGBT community.”

Ralston spokesman Kaleb McMichen said “nobody was shut out of this discussion — from the left or the right.”

“Those conversations went on for weeks and, like all negotiations, had starts and stops,” McMichen said. “But by Tuesday night there was a consensus” among key lawmakers.

McMichen said the negotiation room was diverse, an assertion backed by other people involved in the discussions. That included “business leaders and other meaningful voices from across the political and ideological spectrum,” McMichen said.

“There was a concerted effort on the part of everyone to arrive at meaningful language to protect religious liberties that did not open the door to discrimination,” he said.

McMichen declined to name who was involved. Others who took part in the negotiations did, too. The most visible and respected leaders at the Capitol for the LGBT community — Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham and former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard, a lobbyist for Georgia Equality — both deny participating in negotiations.

‘One of the concerns’

Yet as the bill sped toward final passage, several lawmakers raised concerns about having the vote so soon after seeing the compromise. One Republican House member, who refused to speak on the record because GOP caucus meetings are supposed to be private, said there was “tremendous discomfort from many, many people of having to vote on this with only an hour to look at it.”

“Frankly, this issue, the way it has been handled, has been a (mess),” the lawmaker said. “The version of the bill that came out, there were several people with a high level of discomfort with how it was produced to us. We wanted time. Several of us expressed concern and said, ‘Can we vote on this on Tuesday?’ And they said, ‘No.’

“It’s a hole we dug ourselves in.”

State Rep. B.J. Pak, R-Lilburn, was one of 10 Republican House members to vote against HB 757. A former federal prosecutor, Pak said the bill does not do enough to help either side of the debate.

“I felt like this wasn’t a bill that was adding additional protections for religious expression,” he said, “yet it left lots of questions (about potential discrimination) and gives us a potentially bad reputation.”

In particular, Pak said the “new” religious protections in the bill essentially already exist for “acts that are truly expression of religious faith,” and that the bill does not offer protections to private businesses. On the other hand, while the bill says it cannot be used to violate state and federal anti-discrimination laws, it does not say the same thing about local ordinances. There are no federal or state laws that protect gays, lesbians and transgender people from discrimination, but many cities, such as Atlanta, have local anti-discrimination laws.

Pak fears what HB 757 would do to those local ordinances.

“That was one of the concerns I have as well, and the speaker, being a very good attorney, recognized that issue,” Pak said. “I’m not convinced we pre-empted the local ordinance.”

Ralston said Wednesday that the courts will have to decide the fate of local anti-discrimination laws.

But many conservatives felt they’d given up something to include any anti-discrimination language in the final bill.

“We included nondiscrimination language which, while I still maintain (it) is not necessary, was a concession I was willing to make to see the bill move,” McKoon said. So, too, was another compromise for conservatives that meant excluding from the bill provisions related to business owners who did not want to serve gay couples.

Instead, the bill includes language that says an individual does not have to attend a gay wedding. That was important to the Senate, where leadership wanted some individual protection. “We wanted the bill to resemble closely what we passed,” said one person close to the Senate’s side of negotiations, adding that many in the chamber felt strongly that some protections for faith-based organizations needed to also be included.

“The governor had concerns about faith-based organizations that were for-profit,” the person said. So the bill includes a mandate that any organization under the bill be registered as a nonprofit. It also includes a provision requiring that if a nonprofit religious group enters into a contract with the state, it must abide by the rules of the contract even if it is written to force service to all people.

‘A reasonable compromise’

Veteran Atlanta civil rights attorney Ed Buckley said one thing is for sure: Much of the bill will wind up before a judge.

“I bet on few things,” he said, “but I bet you a cup of coffee on that.”

To Buckley there’s little question about the point of the bill.

“At the root of this bill is the desire to allow discrimination against people who are gay or transgender or married to the same sex,” he said.

The bill says government must pass a strict test before interfering with an individual’s religious practice as long that practice doesn’t violate state or federal law. And, while there are no federal LGBT protections, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has begun to interpret federal law barring discrimination on the basis of “sex” to include sexual orientation, but it will likely be years before courts decide whether that’s allowed.

Supporters of the measure say critics have exhausted any reasonable excuse to oppose it. State Rep. Mike Dudgeon, R-Johns Creek, supported HB 757.

“Unfortunately, I think the opponents of this issue have dug in so much that they made it impossible to back up their positions even when a reasonable compromise was made,” Dudgeon wrote on his personal website. “These laws have become the popular tool recently to parody the GOP as hating minorities, gays, etc. I know the hearts of my leadership and colleagues who supported this measure and I can assure you the ‘story’ you see in the press does not match the reality as I see it.”

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