March 16, 2016 Atlanta: Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, top left, listens to Senators while preparing for the debate over a rewritten "religious liberty" bill passed by the House on Wednesday evening March 16, 2016. Senators proposed several additional amendments to the bill. Ben Gray /
Photo: Ben Gray
Photo: Ben Gray

Top Georgia leaders: No special session on ‘religious liberty’ veto

House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said Thursday that they would not push to overturn Gov. Nathan Deal’s veto of a “religious liberty” measure this year, but both vowed to unite behind a new version of the controversial legislation next year.

In an exclusive joint interview, the leaders of the two legislative chambers told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that they are ready for a fresh start on the debate over the measure, which would extend legal protections to opponents of same-sex marriage, and are heeding the calls of religious conservatives clamoring for more safeguards for faith-based organizations.

They would not commit to any specific language in the next version of the measure, including whether they would include a broader anti-discrimination clause sought by gay rights activists. But they downplayed the barrage of threats from Hollywood heavyweights and blue-chip corporations who said they would boycott the state if the measure became law.

And they cast the version of the legislation that swiftly passed both chambers this month as a compromise, watered-down from the Senate’s more strident measure, that was hashed out with business groups and Deal’s aides at the table.

“I can’t speak for anyone else, I can just speak for myself. We entered into good-faith negotiations in hopes that we could get to a reasonable bill that would reach a consensus with everyone,” Cagle said. “Obviously, we were not able to do that, but it’s not the end of the world. It’s just the beginning of a new chapter.”

The governor defied religious conservatives and grass-roots activists in his party on Monday by vetoing the legislation, House Bill 757, which would have allowed faith-based organizations to deny services to others based on “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

“I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community,” Deal said.

Some conservative legislators have called for a “veto session” to summon lawmakers back to Atlanta, a move that would require three-fifths support in each chamber. Overturning his veto would face a higher bar — two-thirds support in each chamber — a threshold the vote failed to reach in March.

Both said they would oppose a veto session, with Ralston saying it “has the potential to be counterproductive.” Cagle didn’t close the door on an attempt to override the veto next year, though Ralston said he would rather devote his energy to trying to reach a consensus among lawmakers than reversing the governor’s decision.

“I don’t know that the votes would be there to override the veto,” Ralston said. “My preference would be to come together and focus on the substance of the bill rather than the rhetoric that’s out there — and reach a resolution.”

The two Republicans both stood firmly by their legislation — and against critics who sought to depict it as “anti-gay.” Cagle said a litany of chief executives called him to harangue him about the legislation, but none had actually read the measure. He pointed to Georgia-Pacific’s decision to add 600 jobs in Atlanta the day after the legislation was approved as a sign that fears were overblown.

“The business community was very much at the table throughout this entire process. The Senate, the House and the governor’s office were privy to this discussion,” Cagle said. “And more times than not we thought we had a consensus to move forward on the bill. It is important to understand this was not a twelfth-hour bomb.”

Both were firm on another important point: They don’t want the debate to drag for years.

“I am interested in a resolution and not having an issue out there in perpetuity,” Ralston said. “Some people like having an issue more than a solution. I’d rather reach a solution.”

And Cagle, for his part, promised the “issue does not go away.”

“I’ve seen the silent majority waking up,” Cagle said, “and this is one of the issues that has awakened them.”

The lieutenant governor spoke of “a tremendous amount of emails and correspondence” seeking some type of religious liberty legislation.

“I, for one, believe very strongly that we do need to ensure that this standard is put in place for the state of Georgia. And I think that more dialogue will occur during the interim,” Cagle said. “And when we get back into the session by January, we will chart a course forward.”

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