Political courage is so rare these days the very phrase clangs on the ear as a contradiction, an oxymoron like “jumbo shrimp.” This is an era when winning elections seems the sole quest and governing is focused on the next trip to the polls, not facing tough problems head-on regardless of the fallout.
But Gov. Nathan Deal’s veto of the legislature’s “religious liberty” bill rises to that level, showing a willingness to defy his own party to do the right thing.
No one envies Deal’s dilemma. This issue pits two different factions of conservatives against each other: Social activists and evangelicals against business interests, both groups that have supported him and other Republicans. He knew any decision he made would leave many unhappy.
Yet the veto was needed. The bill would have driven a wider wedge between Georgians over the contentious same-sex marriage issue. Protecting individuals’ right to their beliefs is important, but covered by the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...” Those 16 words already keep pastors, business owners and others from being forced to compromise their faith. When individual rights clash with the law, the courts must apply the U.S. Constitution in every case. A clutter of extra laws at the state or federal level won’t change that.
Deal made his decision based on the bill’s likely outcome. The first effect, as he stated, is to avoid labeling Georgia as a place of intolerance for all lifestyles. Our state has succeeded economically and socially as a great place to live and work, and anything that smacks of discrimination doesn’t move us forward as a key player in a diverse society.
Those who oppose the governor’s veto say he caved in to corporations and special interests that had threatened boycotts had the bill become law. Many threatened to pull out of Georgia, including the growing TV and movie industry the state has cultivated with tax incentives and investments. Also rattling its sabers was the National Football League, which said Atlanta could forget ever getting another Super Bowl in its fancy $1 billion ballpark now going up downtown.
That clearly was a factor in Deal’s decision. The question he had to ask is whether the problems the bill would address were worth the damage it would cause. An elected leader needs to weigh risks and rewards; if righting a grievous wrong would alienate Hollywood and others, so be it. But this bill didn’t meet that standard, and was proposed to solve phantom problems that don’t yet exist.
In fact, the House bill that passed was watered down a few times to try and weed out concerns over discrimination. The final version would have protected pastors from being forced to perform same-sex ceremonies and faith-based organizations that provide public services from being forced to abandon their beliefs. But it likely would have had minimal practical effect, and wasn’t worth the jobs and economic gains it would cost.
In reality, the bill was more symbolic, a way for lawmakers to join other social conservatives in response to the Supreme Court decision by saying, in essence: We don’t agree with same-sex marriage, but we can’t stop it, so we’ll pass a law thumbing our noses at the idea. The sentiment behind it, more than its possible enforcement, is what soured many against Georgia and spawned the idea of an economic snub.
Yet it’s also worth remembering how fast this major shift in attitudes has come upon us. Just a few years ago, even most on the left favored a “one man, one woman” definition of marriage. Even when social change is needed and overdue, it takes time for many to adjust to a new reality.
We also should remember that members of the faith community are tasked with guiding spiritual journeys, not creating policy. They are neither politicians nor lawyers (we have plenty of both) and their efforts to keep their communities on the right moral path is where their hearts and heads will always be. We should respect that.
But government has a different role: To enforce laws that apply to everyone, believers of all faiths and nonbelievers as well. The Constitution was designed to protect the rights of all Americans to choose their own paths. Those whom we elect to office should let it do so without interfering.
We’re thankful the governor did so by putting principle above politics. It helps that he doesn’t have to seek re-election — and maybe is an argument for term limits — since his veto has sparked fresh dissension within his party. But unlike the war of personalities we see in the national presidential campaign, this debate is over substance. In the long run, that could help the party bring in different views to broaden its message.
Regardless, a veto won’t end the discussion. Two local pastors have weighed in with their views on today’s Viewpoint page, and we welcome those from other local residents. This is a worthy debate that is necessary in a free society. The tug-of-war over balancing personal rights vs. public concerns began with the birth of the republic, and should never end. The answers that emerge define us as a nation and a people.
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