ATLANTA – Georgia's term-limited Gov. Nathan Deal took a stand against his own party and averted threatened boycotts by major corporations on Monday by announcing his veto of a "religious freedom" bill passed exclusively by Republican lawmakers.
"I do not think that we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia," Deal declared.
The bill enumerated a list of actions that "people of faith" would not have to perform for other people. Clergy could refuse to perform gay marriages; churches and affiliated religious groups could have invoked their faith as a reason to refuse to serve or hire someone. People claiming their religious freedoms have been burdened by state or local laws also could force governments to prove there's a "compelling" state interest overriding their beliefs.
All but 11 Republicans in the Georgia House and Senate voted in favor; all Democrats voted against it.
Deal said he could "find no examples that any of the things this bill seeks to protect us against have ever occurred in Georgia."
One Kingsland pastor told News4Jax that for him, it's about showing the character of God to everyone who walks through the doors of Restoration Church, regardless of the law.
“I would lead those people through the Scriptures and show them what God's holy Word says about whatever situation that they are trying to officiate over, and then I would let it rest on what the word of God says,” Pastor Gregory Gardell said. “We have a calling and that calling is to meet with all people. I don't believe it should block us. I don't think it should shake us. I don't think you should change anything that we do.”
Opponents of the bill said virtually anyone could justify discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Georgia had the bill become law -- a possibility that brought boycott threats from a list of corporate heavyweights. Coca-Cola and other big-name Georgia companies joined prominent Hollywood figures urging Deal to reject the proposal. The Walt Disney Company, Marvel Studios and Salesforce.com threatened to take their business elsewhere. The NFL said it would be a factor in choosing whether Atlanta hosts the 2019 or 2020 Super Bowl.
"I do not respond very well to insults or to threats" from either side, the governor said. Now 74 and with no plans to run again for office in Georgia, he was blunt in his criticism, saying the Founding Fathers made it clear that religious liberties "were given by God and not by man's government."
State lawmakers, he said, had tried but failed to purge the bill of any possibility that it would allow or encourage discrimination, which "illustrates how difficult it is to legislate something that is best left to the broad protections of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution."
Lawmakers have already left the Capitol for the year, adjourning after midnight on Thursday. They would need a three-fifths majority of both houses to ask the governor to convene a special session, and even then, vote totals on the bill suggest they lack the two-thirds vote in both chambers to override his veto.
House Speaker David Ralston said he respects Deal's "thoughtful consideration" but doesn't believe the bill permits discrimination.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, another Republican, said the bill struck the "right balance," and blamed "hyperbole and criticism" for the raging debate.
"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.
Republican state Sen. Mike Crane of Newnan, now running for Congress, did call for a special session to override the veto. Another supporter, Republican Sen. Josh McKoon of Columbus, said he's disappointed, because "Gov. Deal ran for office as someone the faith community could rely on."
National gay-rights organizations immediately hailed Deal's decision.
"We thank Governor Deal for doing the right thing," said Matt McTighe, who runs the Freedom for All Americans group. "The governor understands that while our freedom of religion is of critical importance, it doesn't mean there's a need for harmful exemptions that can lead to discrimination."