Amid mounting pressure from multinational corporations, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal on Monday announced his plan to veto a contentious bill framed as protecting religious freedom but that critics warned would lead to anti-gay discrimination.
The bill, dubbed the Free Exercise Protection Act, would have given faith-based organizations in Georgia more leeway to deny services to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Supporters said the measure was meant to protect religious freedom, while critics described it as "deplorable" and "divisive."
"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 for all of our lives," Deal said at a press conference at the state Capitol.
The Republican, a devout Baptist, said he had examined the protections that House Bill 757 proposed to offer the faith-based community. "I can find no examples of any of those circumstances occurring in our state," he said.
In vetoing the bill, Deal argued, he was not just providing a business-friendly climate for job growth in Georgia. "I believe it is 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."
"Our people work side by side without regard to the color of our skin, or the religion we adhere to," he added. "We are working to make life better for our families and our communities. That is the character of Georgia."
The bill, which lawmakers tweaked and amended over the course of the legislative session, declared that no pastor could be forced to perform a same-sex wedding. It also grants nonprofit faith-based organizations the right to reject granting permission "to rent, lease, or otherwise grant permission for property to be used by another person for an event which is objectionable" to that organization.
Such groups would also have the right to fire or not hire a person "whose religious beliefs or practices or lack of either" run counter to the organization's religious beliefs.
House Bill 547, Deal said, contained language that caused him "some concern" that it "may in fact encourage or allow discrimination that is sanctioned by the state." Freedom of religion, he argued, was best left to the U.S. Constitution.
Deal stressed that his veto was not meant to disparage legislators' motivations. Many, he noted, had sought to compromise as the bill passed through the House and Senate.
"Their efforts to purge this bill of any possibility that it would allow or encourage discrimination illustrates how difficult it is to legislate on something that is best left to the broad protections of the 1st Amendment of our United States Constitution," he noted.
Since the bill was passed March 16, it has met sustained opposition from major players in the entertainment industries. Disney and Marvel threatened to stop film production in Georgia if Deal signed the bill into law. Various other corporations — including Apple, Comcast, Dell, Time Warner and Sony Pictures — urged the governor to veto.
Deal, however, insisted he had tried to ignore the pressure from businesses and act according to his own conscience. "To those within the business community, some of whom - not all, by any stretch – have resorted to threats of withdrawing jobs from our state, they should know: I do not respond very well to insults or threats," he said. "The people of Georgia deserve a leader who will make sound judgments based on solid reasons that are not enflamed by emotion. And that is what I intend and have tried to do."
The veto did not come as a surprise. Earlier this year, the governor urged fellow Republicans to compromise, warning he would not sign a bill that allowed discrimination.
"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 told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "But we don't have to discriminate against other people in order to do that."
Still, Deal's veto is likely to enrage conservative religious lawmakers who have unsuccessfully sought to strengthen what they consider religious protections in Georgia for the last three years. Last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage only fortified their resolve.
Already, leading Republicans have vowed to revive the measure next year.
"Vetoing the bill does not end the debate," said Georgia state Sen. Joshua McKoon, a leading advocate for such legislation. "This will only intensify the debate and intensify efforts to move a bill forward."
McKoon has long questioned how "inclusive" critics of religious freedom legislation are, arguing their definition of inclusion does not extend to people of religious faith.
"I don't think it's inclusive to try to prevent a policy that tries to ensure governments are not going to punish people according to their religious beliefs," he said. "To me, that's not inclusive."
A veto, McKoon said, sent a strong message to voters that their representatives in the Legislature are not in control. "I believe the people who ought to be in the driver's seat are the voters," he said.
"If we get to a place where businesses can sort of rattle their sabers and say, 'We're going to leave town if you pass this law,' then we've gotten to a whole new layer in terms of the influence of money and politics," he continued. "If we get to that point in Georgia, we would be better off saving the public the expense of elections and just auctioning off seats in the legislature to various Fortune 500 companies."
Deal's decision to veto was welcomed by gay-rights groups. "Gov. 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, executive director of Freedom for All Americans, in a statement.
"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 Gov. Deal for doing the right thing."
Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, thanked Deal for "doing the right thing and rejecting this dangerous bill." The veto, he said in a statement, would protect Georgia's economy and its brand.
But he added that the state still needs to go further to protect its gay and lesbian communities. "Our work is far from over," he said. "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."