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Don’t pass bill that could bruise Georgia’s brand

The United States is the world’s greatest experiment in democracy. Americans have shown for more than 200 years that religious pluralism, freedom of speech and respect for diversity can not only coexist with economic prosperity but can also actively aid in its expansion.

Georgia figured out the formula well before its Deep South neighbors. Atlanta’s reputation as “The City Too Busy to Hate” spurred economic and population growth that left our neighbors behind. In time, Georgia became “The State Too Busy to Hate.” It has boomed into the eighth-largest state and is now home to 20 Fortune 500 and 33 Fortune 1000 companies and thousands more job creators, big and small.

Georgia Prospers, a coalition of more than 300 businesses dedicated to promoting non-discrimination policies and equal treatment for all, follows in that tradition. We believe that treating all Georgians and visitors fairly is essential to maintaining Georgia’s strong brand as the premier home for talented workers, growing businesses, entrepreneurial innovation, and a thriving travel and tourism industry (Editors Note: Cox Enterprises Inc., owner of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is a Georgia Prospers member.)

The importance of an inclusive climate goes far beyond corporate boardrooms. Our economic growth is crucial to all Georgia families, our neighborhoods, our schools, our roads and our houses of worship. We’ve gotten ahead by presenting a welcome mat to the world – and the world has responded well to that Southern hospitality.

That graciousness is what you’d expect from Georgians, who by a significant majority are people of faith. We hold our faith traditions dear and they shape our values, which in turn shape our communities. As Americans we enjoy the highest protections possible when it comes to practicing our religion and speaking our views in the public domain. Those are our founding principles. They are sacred. Each generation of Americans has worked through the gray areas of how to balance the will of the majority with protections for the minority.

Georgia now faces such a debate as the General Assembly considers the First Amendment Defense Act, which would allow some businesses and nonprofits to ignore any law that conflicts with its religious beliefs about marriage.

While proponents see it as reaffirming the First Amendment, many others see it as a license to discriminate against certain groups of Americans.

In other states, similar laws cloaked in the rhetoric of religious freedom caused immediate and severe backlash. Last year, Indiana suffered weeks of negative national media coverage that led to major industry groups canceling conventions in Indianapolis and businesses stating they would not add jobs in the state, damaging the Hoosier brand the people of Indiana take so seriously.

Indiana quickly backtracked and amended the law with nondiscrimination language to make clear the new law could not be used to discriminate against certain classes of people. The national umbrage ended, but the bruise on the Hoosier State’s image still lingers.

No one in Georgia wants to go through what Indiana experienced. It is a little-known fact that Georgia state law offers no nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT community. In other words, this bill will take Georgia law from a “see-no-evil” approach to discrimination to tacit approval. That could prove devastating for our reputation as a great place to do business.

We can renew our image as the gateway to the Southeast, the leader that’s still “The State Too Busy to Hate.” We don’t have to choose between our faiths and economic growth that benefits us all. We can have our peach and eat it too.

Ronnie Chance, a former state senate Republican keader, is director of Georgia Prospers.

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