Gov. Nathan Deal has issued his strongest words yet about HB 757, the anti-gay so-called “religious freedom” bill that has caused an uproar over the last few weeks. The Republican governor, who was the recipient of a delivery of 75,000 emails and postcards in opposition to the bill on Wednesday, said he would reject any bill that “allows discrimination in our state in order to protect people of faith” and called on his fellow Republicans to “recognize that the world is changing around us.”

The comments came on Thursday, three days after warning lawmakers away from legislation that could be “perceived as discrimination.” Deal today said he wouldn’t be disappointed if any version of HB 757 failed to pass before the legislative session ends on March 24, adding that “It’s not on my agenda item. It’s not one of those issues that I have been pushing.”

More from the AJC:

“I know that there are a lot of Georgians who feel like this is a necessary step for us to take. I would hope that in the process of these last few days, we can keep in mind the concerns of the faith-based community, which I believe can be protected without setting up the situation where we could be accused of allowing or encouraging discrimination.”

A biblical argument against discrimination from the governor, a Southern Baptist:

“What the New Testament teaches us is that Jesus reached out to those who were considered the outcasts, the ones that did not conform to the religious societies’ view of the world … We do not have a belief in my way of looking at religion that says we have to discriminate against anybody. If you were to apply those standards to the teaching of Jesus, I don’t think they fit.”

“What that says is we have a belief in forgiveness and that we do not have to discriminate unduly against anyone on the basis of our own religious beliefs. We are not jeopardized, in my opinion, by those who believe differently from us. We are not, in my opinion, put in jeopardy by virtue of those who might hold different beliefs are who may not even agree with what our supreme court said the law of the land is on the issue of same-sex marriage. I do not feel threatened by the fact that people who might choose same-sex marriages pursue that route.”

And Deal said he’s still against marriage equality, but added:

“But that does not mean that those who hold to that view should feel like they are threatened by those who have a different point of view.

“I hope that we can all just take a deep breath, recognize that the world is changing around us, and recognize that it is important that we protect fundamental religious beliefs,” he said. “But we don’t have to discriminate against other people in order to do that. And that’s the compromise that I’m looking for.”

House Speaker David Ralston’s spokesman issued a statement to the AJC after hearing of Deal’s comments:

“Speaker Ralston appreciates and shares Governor Deal’s sincere commitment to protecting religious liberties while ensuring that Georgia continues to welcome everyone with genuine southern hospitality. Productive conversations continue with the Governor’s staff as well as other members of House leadership regarding HB 757 and the Speaker is confident that we can find a way to move forward together.”

Deal is in his second and final term in office and will be 77 years old by the time he leaves, so with no likely plans to continue in politics after that, it makes sense that he can and would come out strongly against the bill like this because a) he doesn’t have a future election to worry about and b) he doesn’t want an anti-gay bill that wreaked havoc on the state’s economy to be his legacy. And this must be the week for Republican governors to buck the GOP trend against LGBT rights following South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s veto of a controversial anti-transgender “bathroom bill” on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, LGBT and GOP leaders are on high alert as they wait to see what Ralston and the House do next with HB 757. March 24 is three weeks from today so expect some more fireworks from one or both sides before it’s all over.

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