An 11th-hour ‘religious liberty’-related bill fails in Georgia

Efforts by some lawmakers to pass a new bill related to the “religious liberty” fight in the waning hours of Georgia’s legislative session appear to have failed after language aimed at corporations’ diversity policies got stripped out of the legislation.

House Bill 904 returned to the legislation it started the day as: legal updates involving the state Department of Labor and and the Department of Revenue. It still required a vote in both the House and Senate for final passage before midnight, when the Legislature must adjourn for the year.

The temporary changes, however, seemed aimed at challenging the critics of a major “religious liberty” bill that passed a week ago, because it would have opened up private businesses to class-action lawsuits if they violated their own anti-discrimination policies.

“This gives teeth to what have essentially been aspirational employment policies,” said state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, before the effort failed. “As much as we’ve heard from the corporate community about concerns for tolerance and inclusivity, we want to make sure those promises are enforceable promises.”

HB 904 began its life as a bill important to the Department of Labor, dealing with unemployment taxes. But when the House and Senate could not agree on one version, the bill ended up in a conference committee, made up of three negotiators from the House and three from the Senate.

Within hours Thursday, they had all signed off on a new version that includes the original language from HB 904 and added new language saying it was “the intent of the General Assembly to protect consumers, legitimate business enterprises, and other members of the public that rely on such statements, pledges and policies.”

It would have made it an “unfair or deceptive practice” for a company to violate its own non-discrimination policy or statement and allows employees to sue if they believe those policies were broken. Companies could face individual or class-action lawsuits for alleged violations.

McKoon was part of the conference committee that came up with the language. He has also led the battle for more than two years at the Capitol to pass protections for religious views. Here’s how he described the temporarily new HB 904:

“In essence, it is an amendment to the Georgia Fair Business Practice Act,” McKoon said. “And what we are saying is, if you hold yourself out as a company with a policy that is beyond the discrimination policies that are protected by federal and state law … and you do not follow your own policy, then you can be liable to a lawsuit from either an employee who’s aggrieved by a violation of your policy or a consumer who’s damaged.”

An example, McKoon said, was if “somebody decides they’re going to purchase a product or a service because of the company’s reputation for inclusiveness and tolerance and then they find out they’ve essentially been defrauded because the company is not following that policy.” That person, he said, could sue the company for false advertising.”

The revamped bill came as Gov. Nathan Deal is considering whether to sign or veto HB 757, the “religious liberty” bill that passed last week. That bill makes sweeping changes to state law, allows faith-based organizations to deny service to anyone with whom they have a religious disagreement, and potentially undermines local anti-discrimination ordinances.

HB 757 has been vilified by major Atlanta-based corporations and business groups, technology and film giants around the country and the state’s major professional sports teams.

As lawmakers, lobbyists and business groups began to digest the new HB 904, many were coming to the conclusion that it is designed as a shot across the bow of Georgia businesses.

Deal remained tight lipped when asked about HB 757 late Thursday.

“I’ll try to act as expeditiously as possible, especially on major pieces of legislation,” he said after giving brief remarks in the House and Senate. “We don’t have a time frame.”

Deal previously warned lawmakers he would not support any legislation that legalizes discrimination. When asked Thursday whether he thought the measure did just that, Deal declined to comment.

“I’ve listened to comments and expressions of opinion from both sides on the issue,” he said, when pressed with a different question on the measure. “And I do consider them. I consider all of those opinions.”

Religious conservatives have long sought a way to strengthen legal protections for opponents of same-sex marriage, but the effort crystallized this legislative session on the heels of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling. Critics warn that it amounts to legalized discrimination and warn of a corporate backlash similar to the blowback Indiana faced.

A growing list of corporations have urged Deal to veto the measure or threatened to pull back investment in Georgia if it passes. On Thursday, Time Warner, Fox and Starz all called on the governor to reject the measure. Deal said he’s heard those concerns loud and clear, but that he’s also heard from droves of supporters.

“This is certainly one of those that has attracted more attention than perhaps many others,” he said. “But there are also other people who are citizens of our state, many of them for very long times, and generational constituents for very long times, who may share opposite opinions about this particular piece of legislation.”

He added: “It is a very difficult piece of legislation, and one that I’m looking at very, very carefully.”

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

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