Georgia governor to veto ‘religious liberty’ bill

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ATLANTA (CNN) — Under increasing pressure from major corporations that do business in Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal announced Monday he will veto a bill that critics say would have curtailed the rights of Georgia’s LGBT community.

House Bill 757 would have given faith-based organizations in Georgia the option to deny services and jobs to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Supporters said the measure was meant to protect religious freedom, while opponents have described it as “anti-LGBT” and “appalling.”

Speaking to reporters Monday morning, Deal, a Republican, said he didn’t think the bill was necessary.

“I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia, of which I and my family have been a part of for all of our lives,” he said.

He said he was not reacting to pressure from the faith-based community or responding to the business community, which warned Georgia could lose jobs if he signed the bill.

His decision, he said, was “about the character of our state and the character of our people. Georgia is a welcoming state. It is full of loving, kind and generous people. … I intend to do my part to keep it that way. For that reason I will veto House Bill 757.”

Georgia legislator seeks to override veto

A Georgia legislator who supported the bill, state Sen. Mike Crane, called for a special session to override Deal’s veto, saying it’s an example of how corporations and lobbyists buy influence with “the political class.”

A three-fifths majority in both the House and Senate is needed to call a special session, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. An override requires a two-thirds majority in both chambers. The bill fell short of that threshhold by one vote in the Senate and 16 in the House, the newspaper reported.

Both chambers of the Republican-dominated Georgia Legislature passed the bill a few weeks ago. Other versions of the legislation had failed to pass in previous years.

House Speaker Dennis Ralston, a Republican, called the bill “a good faith compromise” that included “clear anti-discriminatory language.”

“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,” he said.

Timothy Head, executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, issued a statement defending the bill, saying it “simply protects pastors, churches, and faith-based organizations from being forced to violate their religious beliefs. … We are confident we will ultimately prevail in protecting the free speech and religious expression of all Georgians.”

The measure drew a large outcry from major players in the business, tech and entertainment industries.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said the company “can’t have a program in Georgia” if the bill were to become law. Disney said it would stop filming in the state, and Unilever said it would “reconsider investment” if the legislation were signed. Coca-Cola spoke out against the bill, as did Home Depot and several other Fortune 500 companies based in Atlanta.

The NFL said the bill could cost Atlanta the opportunity to host the Super Bowl. Time-Warner, the parent company of CNN, also opposed the legislation.

More than a dozen states have approved similar laws in the past year.

The proposed Georgia law would have ensured that pastors could not be forced to perform same-sex marriages. It also would have allowed faith-based organizations to fire, to refuse to hire, or to refuse services to someone if doing so violates their faith.

Praise, criticism of Deal’s move

A transgender man living in Decatur, Georgia, said it was “truly amazing” to hear Deal’s reason for vetoing the bill.

“It was clear that he not only listened to the opinions of constituents, but that he really took to heart the personal stories that were brought to his doorstep,” said James Parker Sheffield, 36. “As a lifelong resident of Georgia, I hoped for the veto, but never expected the heart that was put into the governor’s statement.”

Groups working to protect LGBT rights praised Deal’s decision.

“We thank Gov. Deal for doing the right thing,” said Matt McTighe, executive director for Freedom for All Americans. “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.”

Karen Slappey, vicar at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Midtown Atlanta, said Deal surprised her.

“I thought his press conference speech was spot on!,” she said in an email to CNN. “I love that he discussed the historical stance on freedom of religion of the founding fathers, his own faith, and that Georgia was full of loving and welcoming people.”

In his statement, Deal said:

“In light of our history, I find it ironic that today some in the religious community feel it necessary to ask government to confer upon them certain rights and protections. If indeed our religious liberty is conferred by God and not by man-made government, we should heed the ‘hands-off’ admonition of the First Amendment to our Constitution.

“When legislative bodies attempt to do otherwise, the inclusions and omissions in their statutes can lead to discrimination, even though it may be unintentional. That is too great a risk to take.”

Deal’s comment on the First Amendment drew fire from Bill Donohue of the Catholic League in Washington.

“That is an astounding argument,” Donohue said in a statement. “The same Founders that acknowledged that our rights come from God, not government, insisted that it was the job of government to ensure those rights. If Gov. Deal can’t understand the difference between the origin of our inalienable rights, and the duty of government officials to protect them, he ought to take a remedial course in civics.”

Bradley West, 18, a student at Kennesaw State University, said he didn’t think Deal really wanted to veto the bill but yielded to pressure from corporations.

“After the NFL threatened to never give Atlanta a Super Bowl, I knew the bill would never make it past Governor Deal’s desk,” he said.

Lawsuit in North Carolina

Also on Monday, a federal lawsuit was filed against the North Carolina governor and other state officials over a new law there that blocks transgender individuals from using public bathrooms that match their gender identity and stops cities from passing anti-discrimination ordinances to protect gay and transgender people.

Two transgender men, a lesbian, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and Equality North Carolina want a judge to declare the state law, House Bill 2, unconstitutional and a violation of federal laws banning sex discrimination.

The suit was filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. The defendants are Gov. Pat McCrory, state Attorney General Roy Cooper III, the Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina and board Chairman W. Louis Bissette Jr. Two of the plaintiffs are university system employees, and one is a university student.

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