Sides argue about impact Georgia ‘religious liberty’ bill would have

The swirl of attention surrounding the “religious liberty” bill Georgia lawmakers passed last week has shown no signs of abating, as advocates and opponents each seek to get their positions etched into Gov. Nathan Deal’s memory.

As criticism of House Bill 757 grew into the weekend, House Republican leaders on Saturday afternoon sent their members a packet of documents to arm them with responses to questions. It included a list of talking points, an analysis of the bill by former state Rep. Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, an overview of the bill and a column written by state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth.

Then, on Monday, the only three openly gay members of the Legislature appealed to Deal to veto the bill, saying they believe the state has already lost face over concerns the legislation would legalize discrimination statewide. Also Monday, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said lawmakers should leave the religious liberty debate to Congress.

Deal has not said whether he will sign the bill and has until May 3 to make up his mind. His office said Monday that it had received thousands of emails and hundreds of telephone calls on both sides of the issue.

In an email to Republican lawmakers, a copy of which was obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kaleb McMichen, a spokesman for Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said: “For whatever reason, some of what has been said has included exaggerations or misinformation. This packet of information is being forwarded to all caucus members so you can have some trusted sources of information for further discussions with your constituents.”

The talking points specify that HB 757 “strikes a balance between protecting rights under the First Amendment while at the same time welcoming all to Georgia without fear of discrimination” and that it is a “carefully drafted, narrowly-focused measure with clear anti-discriminatory language that does not impact commercial transactions and will keep Georgia the #1 state in the nation for business.”

Ralston on Monday was more direct. In an interview that will air at 7 p.m Tuesday on Georgia Public Broadcasting’s “The Lawmakers,” Ralston said the bill is “free of discrimination.”

“Otherwise, I would not have allowed it to go forward,” he said. “I don’t think Georgians want to send the wrong message about what kind of state we are. I want us to message that we are a welcoming state.”

But wide swaths of the state’s business community have mobilized against the bill. The Buckhead Coalition, a group of Atlanta business and civic leaders, joined the chorus of opponents Monday. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Metro Atlanta Chamber have criticized HB 757, and leaders of major corporations, including Intel, PayPal and Yelp, have called on Deal to veto the measure. As the bill moved through the Legislature, more than 400 businesses, including Google, Hilton Worldwide and Synovus, opposed it. After it passed, more joined in, including the National Football League, which suggested HB 757 could jeopardize Atlanta’s Super Bowl bid.

Despite Ralston’s comments, opponents of the measure insist HB 757 would allow discrimination. For example, some have said nearly anyone involved in the wedding industry could refuse to provide services to a gay couple should the bill become law.

That’s because the bill says no “individual” could be forced to attend a same-sex wedding. Under that language, opponents said, a photographer, musician or florist, for example, could refuse to serve a gay couple. After all, a person can’t photograph a wedding if he can’t be forced to attend it.

Lindsey, a former House majority whip, pushed back on those claims. He told the AJC that it’s “regrettable,” but state law already allows a business to refuse to provide those services. HB 757 doesn’t change that, he said.

The legislation says individuals would be free to attend or not attend “solemnization of any marriage, performance of any rite, or administration of any sacrament in the exercise of their rights to free exercise of religion.”

It’s wording that has raised questions about when Georgians are ever legally forced to attend a marriage.

Alexander “Sasha” Volokh, an Emory University professor who teaches constitutional law, said it’s conceivable that language might be used by a court official to avoid taking part in marriages, such as between gays, that they might not agree with on religious grounds.

“That section might give a ‘Kim Davis’ legal basis for ‘I don’t want to do this marriage,’ ” he said, referring to the Kentucky court clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses after last summer’s Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage. “I’m not sure if that is what that subsection was done to do, but, quite frankly, I’m not sure what it was done to do.”

Volokh also said the legislation would allow religious nonprofits such as churches to discriminate in a number of ways, such as selective hiring beyond just preachers — even of janitors or administrative assistants — because of their religious beliefs.

Otherwise, Volokh said, the bill “will not have a great impact on discrimination.”

Lindsey said a separate section of the bill makes clear government employees cannot use it to avoid their duties.

“The bill makes it clear that mandatory government activities must be carried out regardless of one’s religious beliefs,” Lindsey said.

In his analysis of the bill, Lindsey said he believes it would not make sweeping changes.

“But in drilling down into the bill, very little is actually changed by it in Georgia in terms of the present rights of citizens,” he said.

Lindsey does agree, however, with Ralston that at least one part of the bill would likely be decided by a judge. HB 757 does not address what happens to anti-discrimination ordinances already on the books in many Georgia cities, including Atlanta.

Last week, Ralston acknowledged that local ordinances that forbid LGBT discrimination could be at risk. “The local ordinances were a big part of the discussion. So the decision was made that those really need to be determined by the judicial branch rather than by the legislative branch,” Ralston said in the GPB interview.

Lindsey agreed but said he believes courts will uphold the local laws.

In a related development, Sandy Springs City Councilman Andy Bauman on Monday said he will propose an anti-discrimination ordinance offering protections for LGBT employees, contractors and anyone doing business with the city.

Conservative groups such as the Faith and Freedom Coalition and the 1.3 million-member Georgia Baptist Mission Board have urged supporters to ask Deal to sign the bill, saying it would protect religious viewpoints that marriage should be between a man and a woman and prevent discrimination against religious groups.

But Monday, during a press conference at the state Capitol, the only three openly gay members of the Legislature — state Reps. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale, Keisha Waites, D-Atlanta, and Park Cannon, D-Atlanta — appealed to Deal to veto the bill, saying they believe the state has already lost face over concerns the legislation would legalize discrimination statewide. Joining them were state Rep. Taylor Bennett, D-Brookhaven, whose mother is gay, and state Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler, D-Lithonia, the chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus.

“Freedom of religion is an American value; it allows all of us to believe as we see fit,” Drenner said. But, she added, “it does not allow us to use religion to harm or take away from others.”

Staff writers Matt Kempner, Jim Galloway and Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.