As supporters rally for ‘religious freedom bill,’ big business says ‘No’

Legislation that critics feared would open the door for private business owners to discriminate against gays, citing religious beliefs, appears to have been scrapped after overwhelming opposition from the state’s business community.

Senate Bill 377 and House Bill 1023 would require any government in Georgia to meet a high standard before it can intrude on someone’s religious freedoms. Neither of the two separate bills in the state Senate and House are expected to move out of key committees by Monday, the deadline in most cases for legislation to clear one chamber or the other.

Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, and Rep. Sam Teasley, R-Marietta, had both drafted changes after opponents argued their bills would allow businesses to refuse service to gays and lesbians. The pair planned to replace their versions with language lifted directly from a 1993 federal law that has been approved by 18 other states.

McKoon and Teasley were trying to keep Georgia out of the political maelstrom engulfing Arizona. In that state, Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed Wednesday similar legislation that had brought widespread condemnation along with the possible loss of next year’s Super Bowl.

But, even as those changes were readied, the Metro Atlanta Chamber, Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, Home Depot and the InterContinental Hotel Group voiced their opposition to the bills.

“We can’t see how it makes good business sense, it runs counter to our values, and therefore isn’t something we’d support,” Home Depot spokesman Stephen Holmes said.

Coke, in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said any legislation that “would allow a business to refuse service to an individual based on LGBT, or other status, not only violates our company’s core values, but would negatively affect our consumers, customers, suppliers, bottling partners and associates.”

A spokesman for Delta, which issued a statement against the bills and similar proposals in Arizona, on Wednesday told the AJC the bills would impact people, and its business.

“Given that this proposed legislation could have a significant impact on many of our customers and employees, we felt it was appropriate to voice our opposition,” Trebor Banstetter said. “We are also concerned about the potential economic impact on business and jobs in states that enact such legislation.”

London-based IHG, which operates Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo, InterContinental Hotels and other brands, has its Americas headquarters in Dunwoody. In a release, the company said the bills’ “negative effects … would be wide-reaching and significant for both businesses and individuals. IHG opposes these proposals and adds its voice to those urging state officials to reject them.”

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce told the AJC that it is aware of the bills but has not taken a position.

Gov. Nathan Deal, too, said the bills are not a priority of his.

Teasley, the sponsor of House Bill 1023, reiterated Wednesday that his goal is to make sure that government meets a high standard before it may be allowed to intrude on anyone’s rights to observe religious rituals or rules. An example would be a Sikh man could not be forced by a county health inspector to remove his turban to work in a restaurant.

“I still maintain that the bill as introduced was not discriminatory but there were some who had concerns,” Teasley said. “I know what my motivation was.”

McKoon acknowledged earlier this week that the bills as initially proposed could be useful to groups fighting the Affordable Care Act, including Catholic health institutions who oppose provisions in the federal health-care law related to contraception.

On Wednesday, speaking from the floor of the state Senate, McKoon lamented what he called a misinterpretation of the effort and said his motivation was to prevent people of all faiths from being “bullied” by the government. He was not, he said, trying to sanction discrimination of anyone.

From a procedural standpoint, it was McKoon’s Senate Bill 377 that had become the main proposal. Unlike Teasley’s bill, it had already passed out of committee and was eligible for a floor vote in the Senate. But late Wednesday, despite McKoon’s pledge to make changes on the floor, Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, motioned to table the bill instead of putting on the voting calendar for Monday.

The move was significant for two reasons: the Rules Committee is the gatekeeper for bills to get on the floor; and the next time the Senate will be in session — Monday — is the last day for any bill to pass one chamber so it can stay alive.

Critics said the move came just in time.

More than 28,000 people have already signed a national petition started by members of the progressive Credo Action in protest of the Georgia bills, with another 1,600 people signing a petition begun by liberal advocacy group Better Georgia.

Georgia Equality, an advocacy organization for the state’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered communities, remain concerned by the bills, with or without changes.

“I don’t see how we can possibly move forward in a way that addresses everybody’s concerns about this,” executive director Jeff Graham said.

Some groups that wanted to testify Monday to a House committee about HB 1023 did not receive time to speak, particularly those concerned about the proposal’s effect on women’s access to health care, Graham said.

Georgia Equality and others had asked lawmakers to drop the bills until next year, a move Graham felt would give all sides time to come together and find common ground.

Faith groups, meanwhile, urged Georgia lawmakers to remain steadfast in support of the bills.

Leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, an influential group of Orthodox Jews and the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission wrote to Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and urged approval.

Religious freedom bills, they said, “do not elevate any religion over another. Instead, they help ensure that the fundamental right to the free exercise of religion continues to be given robust protection.”

Closer to home, the Georgia Baptist Convention said they will continue to support the bills.

“It’s a bill that mirrors what was already passed in 1993 on a federal level and there have been no problems with it that I know of,” Mike Griffin, lobbyist for the Georgia Baptist Convention, said. “We think it’s good legislation that has already been proven by its passage in 18 states as well.”

Griffin also said lawmakers should make sure their priorities are in the right place.

“We are concerned when it appears that Delta Air Lines and other groups have more influence over whether a religious liberties bill passes than the religious community or just citizens in general in our state,” Griffin said. “I think our legislators need to be listening more to the people who vote for them, rather than the industries that might be supporting them.”

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Staff writers Kelly Yamanouchi and Russell Grantham contributed to this report.