State’s biggest companies stand firm on ‘religious liberty’ bill

Responding to a state senator’s charge that they are trying to impose their “liberal, far-left cultural norms” on Georgia, Delta Air Lines, UPS, Coca-Cola and Home Depot all said this week they are standing fast in their opposition to so-called “religious liberty” legislation at the statehouse.

The religious liberty measure, which has twice failed but will come up again in 2016, would limit the government from interfering with people who base their actions on religious beliefs, the bill's supporters say. But Delta, Coke and others have expressed concern that the bill would, for example, give business owners legal cover to refuse service to gay couples. That, they said, could spark a backlash costing jobs and hurting Georgia’s image — similar to what Arizona and Indiana experienced after they passed similar laws.

Delta said this week it is “proud of our diverse work force and customer base and will continue to oppose policies that would allow discrimination against any of our employees and customers.”

It was a fairly measured response to Republican state Sen. Josh McKoon’s recent comments accusing Delta CEO Richard Anderson of having a “serious disconnect.”

“We’ve had this problem because very large multinational corporations that are headquartered in the state — their executives, many of whom are not from Georgia — have different values than you and I do,” McKoon said at a Paulding County GOP meeting. “They think that their cultural norms, their liberal, far-left cultural norms, should be applied to our state.”

Contacted this week, McKoon was more circumspect, suggesting that he and the big corporate players had the same goal: to protect people’s liberties.

“Religious freedom legislation is about protecting those with diverse views,” he added. “I applaud (the corporations) for recognizing that we must value diversity, promote a culture of tolerance and protect all citizens, including those of all faiths, from government-sponsored discrimination.”

Another supporter of the religious liberty bill, Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Springs, said the “debate is not at all about discrimination, but is completely about use of force by government.”

The heart of the issue, Turner said, is “should the government force an individual to participate in an activity that violates that individual’s deeply held religious beliefs? The answer to that is obviously a resounding ‘no,’ and the religious liberty legislation proposed in Georgia seeks to institute a very modest protection of the individual from that type of government overreach.”

‘It’s preposterous, really’

Some found irony in McKoon’s assertion that Delta’s CEO has a left-wing agenda.

It’s true that the airline holds its annual meetings for shareholders in New York and has a sharp focus on Wall Street. And Anderson, the CEO, made $17.6 million in total compensation last year, including salary, stocks, options and incentives.

But Anderson himself isn’t the spawn of some northeastern elite.Originally from Galveston, Texas, he went to night school to get his law degree from South Texas College of Law. He started his career as a county prosecutor before getting a job as an airline lawyer for better pay to support his family.

In any case, multinational corporations are not often accused of holding far-left views, but that idea may be rooted in the divide Republicans now face on many social issues.

“The problem for Republican political leaders in the South is this is presenting them with a conflict between two important parts of their base — the business community and the religious conservatives,” said Alan Abramowitz, political science professor at Emory University. But, “I think it’s a stretch to say that these business leaders who are opposing these laws are somehow on the far left. It’s preposterous, really.”

‘Protect people from government’

The central disagreement over the religious liberty bill lies along the fault line that Abramowitz describes — between business leaders and social conservatives.

During the 2015 legislative session, pro-business Republican lawmakers successfully added language saying the bill could not be used to discriminate against anyone protected by federal, state or local law. This, McKoon said, gutted the intent of the bill.

The state’s biggest corporate players are likely to disagree.

Sandy Springs-based UPS responded that it “does not support legislation at the federal or state level that is contrary to our longstanding culture of valuing diversity, inclusiveness and equal opportunity.”

Coca-Cola stuck to an earlier statement, saying it “does not support any legislation that discriminates, in our home state of Georgia or anywhere else…. We believe policies that would allow a business to refuse service to an individual based upon discrimination of any kind, does not only violate our company’s core values, but would also negatively affect our consumers, customers, suppliers, bottling partners and associates.”

‘We can’t be chicken about it’

Delta’s Anderson sparked much of the strife with comments over the past couple of years about not just religious liberty, but also his opposition to a second commercial airport for metro Atlanta in Paulding County. And Delta’s advocacy for additional funding for transportation riled Republicans who wanted to keep a lid on taxes.

“We can’t get chicken about it. We have to step up,” Anderson said at a Metro Atlanta Chamber event in December. “If that means raising taxes to fund our roads, it means raising taxes to fund our roads.”

That sparked a heated response from state Rep. Earl Ehrhart during the last legislative session, and eventually galvanized enough legislators to rescind Delta’s long-standing tax break on jet fuel, worth about $23 million a year to the company.

The renewed discussion on the topic comes as pushback to the Supreme Court’s summer ruling on same-sex marriage, Abramowitz said. He noted that McKoon, while “clearly at one end of the spectrum on this,” is correct in pointing to a difference in priorities for large Georgia-based companies and Georgia legislators.

“In one sense he’s right, in that the business leaders are playing to a wider audience, or an audience outside of the state,” Abramowitz said. “They’re not politicians, they’re not running for office in Georgia, in Josh McKoon’s district. They have a larger view on this.”

'This should not be controversial'

House Majority Whip Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, said his father worked for UPS for 30 years and he has three family members at Delta. Both are “very good companies,” he said.

“During my years in the Legislature, I do believe some business interests have made the mistake of seemingly adopting the rhetoric of political activists and commentators when speaking out on legislation, rather than engaging in serious debate about the true intent and meaning of what is often very complex and nuanced legislation.”

Rep. Sam Teasley, R-Marietta, has sponsored similar legislation in the House the past two sessions.

Any “objective reader” of his bill, Teasley said, would see that the objective is to restrict “government’s ability to unnecessarily burden (or ‘discriminate against,’ to use another phrase) a person’s free exercise of religion. This should not be a controversial idea.”

Any company committed to diversity, Teasley said, “is similarly committed to the protection of the diversity of religious beliefs that so many employees, customers and citizens hold most dear.”

Staff writers Aaron Gould Sheinin and Kristina Torres contributed to this article.

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