Gov. Nathan Deal said Monday that he will veto a controversial “religious liberty” bill, arguing that the First Amendment was protection enough for the concerns raised by some Christians after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage last year.
“I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia,” Deal said during a press conference.
Republican majorities passed the bill to broadly protect people whose actions were rooted in their religion. It also would have protected clergy who won’t perform gay marriages and people who won’t attend a wedding for religious reasons.
Churches and affiliated religious groups could have used their faith as an argument for refusing to serve or hire someone.
National gay-rights organizations immediately hailed Deal’s decision.
“We thank Gov. Deal for doing the right thing,” said Matt McTighe, Freedom for All Americans executive director. “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.”
Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, said concerns about the loss of economic development projects and new jobs likely pushed Deal toward the veto.
The bill came before state lawmakers last year but was scrapped when businesses — including chambers of commerce, local convention and visitors bureaus and major corporations — threatened boycotts of Georgia.
The same was true this year, with Disney, Coca-Cola and Home Depot, among many others, saying they believed the bill would codify discrimination against gays and lesbians into law.
In a statement Monday, the Metro Atlanta Chamber praised Deal for taking business considerations into account.
“His thoughtful deliberation and consideration on this issue has led to an outcome that preserves Georgia’s positive business climate, encourages job growth and sustains our quality of life, and is truly in the best interest of all Georgians,” the statement reads.
Deal, however, criticized those businesses that threatened to pull out of the state.
“I do not respond very well to insults or threats,” he said.
Deal said he could not find a single example where religious people had been forced to marry same-sex couples or provide services to them that ran counter to their beliefs.
And while he does not believe that Republican lawmakers were motivated by discrimination to pass the bill, he acknowledged that could be the result if enacted into law.
“Georgia is a welcoming state,” he said.
Deal called it ironic that religious people are asking for government protection when their rights are delivered by God.
The Rev. Tom Smiley, pastor of Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville, said he supported the bill as a way to protect the church from government interference and believes the governor erred in vetoing it.
“History will show that (Deal) chose the easy way, not the right way,” Smiley said.
The Rev. Terry Walton, senior pastor of the Gainesville First United Methodist Church, said Deal’s decision is good for all Georgians because the bill was simply unnecessary and thinly veiled discrimination.
“I just didn’t see this being a positive thing in any way, shape or form,” he said. “I think (Deal’s) done the right thing, and I’m real proud of his courage.”
The General Assembly ended its session Thursday, but with a three-fifths majority in both the House and Senate, lawmakers can ask the governor to convene a special session.
If they can reach that threshold, overriding a governor’s veto requires a two-thirds vote in each chamber.
Republicans don’t hold that margin in either the House or Senate, and all Democrats voted against the bill. Several Republicans in the House and one in the Senate also cast dissenting votes.
Deal said he had no objection to the “Pastor Protection Act,” which passed the House before getting lumped in with the larger religious liberty bill in the Senate.
“The other versions of the bill, however, contained language that could give rise to state-sanctioned discrimination,” Deal said. “I did have problems with that and made my concerns known, as did many other individuals and organizations, including some within the faith-based community.”
Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said these changes likely forced the governor’s hand.
“Obviously, the message is to the Senate,” he added. “I know big business plays into it. You start getting all these threats.”
Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, said he was disappointed by the governor’s decision and that critics had misrepresented the bill’s intent.
“We’re letting business that comes here and kind of bullies us ... and we give in to it when there’s not discrimination in this bill,” he said.
Dunahoo said he would support a special session to override Deal’s veto “if that’s what it takes.”
Michelle Jones, a Democrat challenging Dunahoo in House District 30 race this year, said in a statement that her husband is a small business owner and man of faith. So her support for Deal’s veto takes into account both a religious and economic perspective.
“The decision the governor made to veto the bill was in the interest of commerce, workers and community in Georgia,” Jones said in a statement. “We must continue to work together with business, and political leaders on both sides of the aisle, to make life better in Hall County.”
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Hall County resident considered by many to be eyeing a run at the governor’s office in 2018 when Deal will term out, said the bill struck the “right balance,” adding that the state should actively protect religious belief.
He 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.