ATLANTA (AP) — Conservative groups said Tuesday that Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal turned his back on people of faith by vetoing a “religious freedom” bill and vowed to press the issue in coming years.
“This is not the end of this fight,” said Virginia Galloway, who represents the Faith and Freedom Coalition in Georgia. “This is only the beginning.”
The bill enumerated actions that “people of faith” would not have to perform for others: Clergy could refuse to marry same-sex couples; church-affiliated religious groups could invoke faith as a reason to refuse to serve or hire someone. People claiming their religious freedoms have been burdened by state or local laws could force governments to prove a “compelling” state interest overriding their beliefs.
More than 500 companies joined a coalition led by Coca-Cola and other big-name Georgia firms urging Deal’s veto. The Walt Disney Co., Marvel Studios and Salesforce.com threatened to take business elsewhere. The NFL suggested Atlanta could lose its bids for the 2019 or 2020 Super Bowl.
It remains to be seen whether GOP leaders can gather three-fifths majorities in both houses to request a special session. Even then, with 11 Republicans and all Democrats voting against the bill, they may lack the two-thirds votes needed to override Deal’s veto. Action may have to wait until
Sen. Marty Harbin, a Tyrone Republican, joined two other senators Tuesday in calling for a special session. But neither House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican; nor Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle has made similar statements.
Cagle, who’s considered a top candidate for the GOP governor’s race in 2018, did say the bill struck “the right balance.”
“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,” Cagle said.
Deal, a Baptist, anticipated the criticism in his veto message.
“I do not respond well to insults or threats,” Deal said firmly. “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.”
Supporters said Deal caved to corporate pressure.
“There was an economic threat that was put on Georgia by Disney, the NFL and any other person in Hollywood,” said Garland Hunt, a pastor at The Father’s House in Norcross, Georgia. “Because of economics, he faltered.”
Deal will be able to exercise his veto power during two more legislative sessions before he leaves the governor’s mansion. Now 74, he has said he doesn’t plan to run again.
Sen. Harbin said supporters of the measure will “work until there’s a change in governor if that’s what we have to do.”
More debates about discrimination won’t be welcomed by people trying to attract business to Georgia, said Eric Tanenblatt, a GOP strategist who served as chief of staff to former Gov. Sonny Perdue.
“From an economic development standpoint, it was not helpful having news stories across the country talking about this issue in Georgia,” Tanenblatt said. “… If there’s a spirited debate like this again, that will all resurface.”
Georgia Equality, the state’s largest gay-rights advocacy group, now plans to push for legal protection specific to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents in employment, housing and other services. State law currently offers none.
“While we’re enjoying today’s hard-fought victory, we’ll continue working to ensure every single Georgian is protected from discrimination,” said the group’s executive director, Jeff Graham.
Bynum reported from Savannah, Georgia.