‘Religious liberty’ veto puts rest of Ga. governor’s agenda at risk

Gov. Nathan Deal defied fellow Republicans on Monday by vetoing a controversial “religious liberty” measure aimed at strengthening legal protections for opponents of gay marriage, a move that could jeopardize his legislative agenda and shape the race for his successor.

In a 10-minute press conference, Deal said House Bill 757 didn’t reflect Georgia’s image as a state full of “warm, friendly and loving people” — and he warned critics that he won’t respond kindly 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. 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.”

His decision was swiftly met with calls from Republican lawmakers who approved the legislation less than two weeks ago and now want to overturn his decision, calling for a veto session.

It was a sharp reminder that this debate is not going away. And the decision is likely to herald a more acrimonious relationship between Deal, who long prided himself on smooth relations with the legislative branch, and his party’s rank-and-file legislators.

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.

The governor will need many of those same Republicans next year when he unveils the details on the biggest big-ticket item left on his to-do list before he leaves the Governor’s Mansion in January 2019: a plan to “revolutionize” the state’s education system by rewriting how schools are funded, teachers are paid and students are taught.

“The question we have to resolve is whether or not government is going to be used to punish people with a particular point of view,” said state Sen. Josh McKoon, a Columbus Republican who championed the measure. “I fully expect we’ll be back next year debating this again.”

Georgia establishment Republicans, gay rights groups, corporate chieftains and even die-hard Democrats rushed to defend the governor’s decision. Eric Tanenblatt, a veteran Georgia Republican operative, said the veto cements Deal’s legacy as a governor who brought “economic vibrancy” to the state.

“Deal faced tremendous pressure from activists on both sides, but he rose above the fray to act in the interest of the entire state,” Tanenblatt said.

This might not be the only measure that Deal vetoes this year with the potential to upset Republican lawmakers. The governor has expressed deep concerns with legislation to lift the ban on firearms at college campuses, and his handwritten plea to legislative leaders for changes was ignored.

Heavy lobbying on all sides

Deal, a 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.

Executives from dozens of big-name companies, including Apple, Disney, Intel, Salesforce and Time Warner, criticized the measure, while the National Football League warned it could risk Atlanta’s bid for the Super Bowl. Deal’s office said two economic development prospects abandoned Georgia because of the legislation.

They joined with gay rights groups who warned that the measure amounts to legalized discrimination and pointed to the corporate outrage that rocked Indiana after a similar measure was signed into law there.

It was far from a one-sided fight, though. Religious conservatives, in their third legislative session pushing for the measure, made it a top priority after last year’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriages.

The conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition launched robo-calls backing the measure, and the Georgia Baptist Mission Board — the largest Christian denomination backing the effort — marshaled its 1.3 million members to rally around the bill. McKoon and other prominent supporters cast it as a way to protect faith-based beliefs.

“This bill not only had the overwhelming support of both houses of the General Assembly, but also the people of Georgia,” said Dave Baker, the executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Georgia chapter. “This was a compromise bill, and we made sure it protected people of faith without discriminating against anyone.”

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.

Debate seems certain to continue

Deal’s decision to veto the measure did not come as a complete 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.”

And as a term-limited governor with no further political ambitions — he’s vowed to retire to North Georgia in 2019 — he has more freedom than other Republicans who worry about election-year challenges.

Still, in the hours before his announcement, many of the measure’s supporters expressed confidence he would sign the legislation. Shortly before he revealed his decision, the governor talked to Michael Youseff, a prominent metro Atlanta evangelical preacher, about his pending veto.

Youseff soon responded on Twitter by quoting from Scripture: “What profits a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?”

Georgia Equality, the state’s leading gay rights group, soon upped the ante by calling for lawmakers to pass state-level nondiscrimination laws aimed at protecting the LGBT community. “Our work is far from over,” said Jeff Graham, the group’s director.

Indeed, it’s a debate that seems likely to resonate through the 2018 governor’s race.

House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, a leading potential Democratic candidate, praised him for rejecting “flawed and dangerous” legislation that she said could enshrine discrimination in state statutes.

Potential Republican contenders have drawn battle lines as well.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, long an ardent ally of business boosters, broke with the Metro Atlanta Chamber and others to champion the religious liberty legislation. The Republican expressed his disappointment in Deal’s decision — and hinted that the debate will stay at the top of his mind if he runs for governor.

“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,” he said. “This principle will continue to guide my actions going forward.”

The governor, who didn’t take any questions after his remarks, said he expects a wave of acrimony over his decision. Already, one group posted the private email address of his chief of staff, Chris Riley, and the governor’s office was deluged with a new round of calls.

“I don’t respond well to insults or threats,” Deal said. “The people of Georgia deserve a leader who will make sound judgments based on solid reasons that are not inflamed by emotion. That is what I intend to do.”

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