BREAKING: Gov. Nathan Deal vetoes Georgia anti-gay ‘religious freedom’ bill

Gov. Nathan Deal ended 12 very long, often tumultuous days of speculation Monday morning and announced that he is vetoing House Bill 757, the controversial anti-LGBT so-called “religious freedom” bill that has roiled state and caused a national backlash.

Deal stated that he was not swayed by the examples of supposed religious discrimination happening in other states that proponents of the bill cited in support of HB 757. Pointing out the example of a bakery in Colorado that refused to sell a same-sex couple a wedding cake and were then sued, Deal mentioned that that case was different because Colorado had adopted a public accommodations law. Georgia has no such statute—a point LGBT activists have been making throughout the debate, and possibly a signal from the governor of what would be needed in the future if any such “religious freedom” bill were to pass in the future.

The governor also stated that he had no issues with the Pastor Protection Act, the version of HB 757 that passed the House unanimously before having the anti-LGBT language of the First Amendment Defense Act inserted in.

“However other versions of the bill contain language that cause me concern as it caused many others concern as it may encourage or allow discrimination sanctioned by the state,” he said Monday.

Deal also made a point that opponents of the bill have been making throughout the debate, saying the entire situation “illustrates how difficult it is to legislate on something that is best left to the broad protections of the First Amendment of our U.S. Constitution.”

He singled out both those in the religious community who have questioned his faith and those in the business community who threatened to withdraw jobs from the state if the bill were signed into law, saying, “The people of Georgia deserve a leader who will make sound judgments based on solid reasons that are not inflamed by emotion.”

The governor ended the press conference by talking about discrimination and the character of the state of Georgia.

“We do not have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community of Georgia, which I am my family have been a part of all of our lives,” he said, adding, “Georgia is a welcoming state. It is full of loving, kind and generous people. I believe that is our best side.

“I intend to do my part to keep it that way. For that reason I will veto House Bill 757.”

State, nation reacts to governor’s veto

Reaction to Gov. Deal’s veto immediately poured in from across the state and the country.

Here’s the full statement from Georgia Equality executive director Jeff Graham:

“We thank Governor Deal for doing the right thing and rejecting this dangerous bill which would have caused irreparable harm to Georgia’s economy, and to the hundreds of thousands of hardworking LGBT people who call Georgia home. On more than one occasion, the governor thoughtfully explained his opposition to discriminatory bills like this – bills which do nothing to advance religious freedom, but do stand to do real harm to our state’s economy and reputation.

“Governor Deal has invested a great deal of leadership into growing Georgia’s economy and ensuring our state remains a great place to do business and a raise a family. The governor’s veto today protects Georgia’s economy and its brand,” added Graham. “But our work is far from over – the dialogue over HB 757 offered a profound reminder that LGBT people still are not covered by any state-level nondiscrimination laws. While we’re enjoying today’s hard-fought victory, we’ll continue working to ensure every single Georgian is protected from discrimination.”

House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams:

“I applaud Governor Deal for vetoing this flawed and dangerous legislation. HB 757 would have enshrined discrimination in our state’s laws, to devastating effect on families and businesses in Georgia. Restricting the civil rights of any community does not reflect our values as Georgians, and I am encouraged that this bill will not become law.”

Lambda Legal southern regional director Simone Bell:

“Today we feel very fortunate that LGBT people and people with living with HIV were spared the terrible consequences of HB 757. We applaud today’s veto by Governor Deal and thank him for his willingness to listen to the voices explaining the damage this bill could have caused. In the end, Governor Deal did not allow hate and fear-mongering to dictate state policy; instead he chose to act reasonably and with compassion and demonstrated that equality is a Georgia value. He listened to the business community, hundreds of ministers, and tens of thousands of Georgians who opposed the bill. Freedom of religion does not give any of us permission to discriminate against others.

HB 757 would have allowed anyone to use religion to treat LGBT people, and others, unfairly and to ignore anti-discrimination policies. As is always the case when discriminatory laws target LGBT people and people living with HIV Lambda Legal is poised to defend the rights of our community.

“But this is far from over. LGBT Georgians need strong and effective protections in both employment and public accommodations — 21 states provide such protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and 17 on the basis of gender identity, and we need to add Georgia to the list.”

LGBT rights coalition Georgia Unites Against Discrimination:

Lesbian state Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates):

“I am pleased with the Governor’s willingness to uphold the values of Georgia. I commend the Governor for doing the right thing. While this is a victory for all Georgians, there is still much work that needs to be done to guarantee full equality for all. I believe Governor Deal’s veto is the step in the right direction.”

Rep. Taylor Bennett (D-Brookhaven), whose mother and sister are lesbians:

“This places Georgia on the right side of history. I commend Governor Deal’s veto of HB 757. His actions upheld the state’s principles of wisdom, justice, and moderation.”

Lesbian state Rep. Keisha Waites (D-Atlanta):

“I agree with the governor’s statement that HB 757 did not “reflect the character of our state or the character of its people. Governor Deal placed Georgia values over politics and did what was best for Georgians and Georgia’s businesses. I appreciate the Governor for listening to families in our state and acknowledging that discrimination of any kind of not just bad for business harmful to everyone.”

Queer state Rep. Park Cannon (D-Atlanta):

“Pushing back against legislation like HB 757 is why I chose to run for office. This veto is a major victory for the LGBTQ community in the south and proves that legally sanctioned discrimination has no place in our state.”

State Rep. Stacy Evans (D-Smyrna):

“I applaud the Governor for vetoing this harmful and divisive legislation. No Georgian, regardless of race or sexual orientation, should be discriminated against. I would like to thank all the citizens, businesses and advocates who spoke out against this dangerous legislation. Together, we made history today.”

State Rep. Nikki Randall (D-Macon):

“I am relieved that Governor Deal vetoed HB 757 today. While the freedom to practice one’s religious is a fundamental right, this extreme legislation went far beyond that. By masking freedom of speech with discriminatory actions against tax paying citizens, HB 757 would have set back our state back while putting all Georgians in danger. We deserve better than that.”

SOJOURN’s Robbie Medwed:

Constitutional scholar Anthony Kreis:

Human Rights Campaign:

“Our message to Governor Nathan Deal was loud and clear: this deplorable legislation was bad for his constituents, bad for business, and bad for Georgia’s future,” said HRC President Chad Griffin. “Today, Governor Deal heard the voices of Georgians, civil rights organizations, as well as the many leaders in the entertainment industry and private sector who condemned this attack on the fundamental rights of LGBT people, and he has set an example for other elected officials to follow. Discrimination and intolerance have no place in the United States of America, and we hope North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory and the North Carolina General Assembly are paying close attention to what has transpired in Georgia. They must undo their disgraceful attack on LGBT people in the state’s upcoming legislative session.”

Griffin also tweeted out thanks to Georgia Equality, Georgia Unites Against Discrimination and Jeff Graham, the leader of both groups:

Freedom For All Americans:

“Governor Deal’s veto of HB 757 represents a tremendous victory not just for LGBT people, but for everyone who believes that fairness and equality under the law are hallmarks of our nation,” said Matt McTighe, Freedom for All Americans executive director. “HB 757, like so many similar bills, gambled Georgia’s economy, reputation and the livelihood of so many of its residents – all for the sake of advancing discrimination. We thank Governor Deal for doing the right thing. 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.”

The Democratic Party of Georgia, per spokesman Michael Smith:

“We commend Gov. Deal on his decision to reject this discriminatory legislation. Leaders from both sides of the aisle and the business community, as well as the countless Georgians who spoke against the politics of exclusion, also deserve a great deal of thanks for standing firm in the belief that our state is better off when we all have full and equal protection under the law.

“For Georgia to move forward, no one can be left behind. The full promise of tomorrow belongs to all of us, and it is up to all of us to ensure that this promise is within every Georgians’ reach.”

State Rep. Park Cannon (D-Atlanta), the queer women’s rights advocate recently elected to the House District 58 seat:

Georgia Senate Democrats:

State Sen. Elena Parent (D-Atlanta):

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State:

“We thank the governor for his veto,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Discrimination has no place in Georgia or any other state.”

The bill, H.B. 757, purported to preserve religious freedom, but Lynn noted that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution already protects pastors and houses of worship that don’t want to preside at or host same-sex marriages.

Other provisions of the bill allowed non-profit groups to deny employment and services to people who offend their religious beliefs – even if those groups are taxpayer funded. Lynn says that goes too far and would have opened the door to broad forms of discrimination.

AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett said she’s glad that Deal listened to the people and businesses of Georgia and stayed true to his promise to reject a bill that allowed discrimination.

“We strongly support religious freedom, but that principle doesn’t mean the right to discriminate against or harm other Georgians,” Garrett said. “We hope that other states that are considering similar bills will heed the lessons learned from Georgia and reject discriminatory measures in their states.”

Congressman John Lewis:

“I am very glad to hear that Governor Nathan Deal decided to veto HB 757, Georgia’s Free Exercise Protection Act, formerly called the Pastor Protection Act. It was the right thing to do. In Atlanta we developed a motto during some of the darkest days of legalized segregation. We decided we were “the city too busy to hate.”

I am relieved that Gov. Deal decided to make it plain that the state of Georgia is also too busy to hate. There is not any room in our society for laws that open the door to discriminatory behavior. Religious freedom is guaranteed and protected by the Constitution, by centuries of legal precedent in America, as well as by the recent decision of the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby v. Burwell.

It was edifying to see powerful forces in our state come together to keep this bill from becoming law. An interreligious coalition of 300 ministers and rabbis protested and declared they did not require the “protection” HB 757 was aimed at providing. Corporations also used their tremendous power to demonstrate their unwillingness to operate in a state that was not inclusive.

It says something about the distance we have come and the progress with have made that so many established forces in our community pulled together to stop discrimination from taking hold. It tells me that the values advanced by Martin Luther King Jr. are still reverberating in our society today, especially in the state where he was born, and in some cases, those values have been embraced as the standard of human decency.”

Tech giant Salesforce:

“Salesforce applauds Governor Deal’s decision to veto HB 757. We look forward to growing both our team and investments in Georgia—including hosting thousands of customers, partners and employees at our Salesforce Connections event in Atlanta on May 10-12th.”

Rabbi Joshua Heller, Congregation B’nai Torah:

“As a Rabbi, I’m relieved and grateful that religion will not be used to excuse or legalize discrimination in our state, thanks to Governor Deal’s decision to veto HB 757. I am one of many Georgians who feel that our faith demands that we treat others fairly and kindly, as we would wish to be treated ourselves.”

Rev. James E. Lamkin, Northside Drive Baptist Church:

“I am grateful to Governor Deal for his courageous leadership in vetoing HB 757. Religious Freedom doesn’t mean freedom to discriminate in the name of religion. As Georgians, we affirm that robust religious freedom is already woven into the fabric of our community; and it is done so by the threads of responsibility, fairness, and equality.”

Rev. William Flippin Jr., Emmanuel Lutheran Church:

“I applaud Governor Deal for his decision to veto a bill that sanctioned discrimination in the name of religion. My faith teaches that we are to treat others fairly, as we would wish to be treated ourselves. By vetoing this bill, the governor has sent a clear message that inclusion is a value that Georgia must embrace. The next step to protect all Georgians from discrimination is to pass comprehensive civil rights protections into law.”

State Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta):

“I am relieved that Governor Deal did the right thing and vetoed HB 757, a bill that would have caused great moral and economic harm to our state.  Now that we have put this legislation in the rear view mirror, I hope that the General Assembly will rededicate itself to focusing on expanding opportunity for all Georgians by raising the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid and improving mass transit.”

Republican lawmaker calls for special session to override veto

State Sen. Mike Crane (R-Newnan) almost immediately called for a special session of the legislature to override Gov. Deal’s veto.

“Today, we saw exactly why our government needs committed conservatives who never stop fighting to protect the Constitution,” Crane said in a statement. “The announcement by Governor Deal is another example of how the political class is bought and paid for by corporations and lobbyists. Rather than standing up and protecting the 1st Amendment, the political class would rather sacrifice those rights to keep the money flowing. It is fair to note, that Governor Deal voted in favor of the Federal RFRA when in Congress. A RFRA that is far stronger than what was passed by the Georgia General Assembly. This fight is not over. Today I am calling for a special session to override the Governor’s veto and protect the First Amendment rights of law abiding and hardworking voters throughout this state.”

Georgia law states that it takes a three-fifths majority in both the House and the Senate to convene a special session.

This is what House Speaker David Ralston had to say following the press conference:

“I respect Governor Deal and the thoughtful consideration he brought to this discussion. I know his choice to veto this measure was not easy.

HB 757, the Free Exercise Protection Act, was a good faith compromise measure which was the result of a lot of hard work and debate involving many interested parties of every perspective. I want to thank all who participated in this process, particularly Rep. Kevin Tanner.

I have shared many of the same concerns expressed by Governor Deal. That is why I have insisted throughout this entire debate that any measure we passed must not only protect the free exercise of religion and faith-based organizations, but also had to include clear anti-discriminatory language. I believed, and still do, that HB 757 met the test we shared.

It is regrettable that the merits of this measure have been ignored in the days since its passage by critics who had not taken the time to read the bill or understand the legal issues involved.

I take pride in the leadership role the House played in making Georgia the number one state in which to do business. We all aspire to a Georgia which is welcoming, hospitable and growing. At the same time, we have a duty to the Georgians we serve — the Georgians who live, work, play and worship here — to listen to their concerns.”

Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition also voiced his displeasure:

State Sen. Greg Kirk (R-Americus) became the face of HB 757 after inserting anti-LGBT language into it. (File photo)
State Sen. Greg Kirk (R-Americus) became the face of HB 757 after inserting anti-LGBT language into it. (File photo)

The path of House Bill 757

While state Rep. Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville) was the initial author of the bill when it was introduced early in the session, Kirk took over as the face of the legislation after inserting the anti-LGBT language of his House Bill 757, dubbed at the time as the First Amendment Defense Act. Kirk is the Senate sponsor of the bill, now dubbed the Free Exercise Protection Act as of March 16 when a revised version of the bill passed in the House and Senate.

The bill would have allowed faith-based organizations (including churches, religious schools or associations) to deny people the rental or any usage of its facilities for events it finds “objectionable.” Also these faith-based organizations would have not been required to provide social, educational or charitable services “that violate such faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious belief.” And they would have been allowed to deny employment and fire those whose “religious beliefs or practices or lack of either are not in accord with the faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious belief.”

Also, the revised bill included much of the language of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which requires government to prove a “compelling governmental interest” before it interferes with a person’s exercise of religion. There was a provision added that said it cannot be used to allow “discrimination on any grounds prohibited by federal or state law” but there are no federal or state laws that expressly protect Georgia’s LGBT community against discrimination.

The bill drew instant backlash after the new version hit Gov. Deal’s desk on March 16, with LGBT groups and the business community speaking out most forcefully against hit. Nearly the entire film and television industry came out against it in recent days, threatening to boycott and significantly damage what has become over a billion dollar annual boost to the state’s economy.

The Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau also stated that over 15 companies may have moved their conventions out of Atlanta if the bill passed, torpedoing the city’s convention business by 40 percent over the next five years and costing the city’s economy over $6 billion.

More to come…