You have reached your limit of free articles this month.

Enjoy unlimited access to myAJC.com

Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks.

GREAT REASONS TO SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

  • IN-DEPTH REPORTING
  • INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING
  • NEW TOPICS & COVERAGE
  • ePAPER
X

You have read of premium articles.

Get unlimited access to all of our breaking news, in-depth coverage and bonus content- exclusively for subscribers. Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks

X

Welcome to myAJC.com

This subscriber-only site gives you exclusive access to breaking news, in-depth coverage, exclusive interactives and bonus content.

You can read free articles of your choice a month that are only available on myAJC.com.

EXCLUSIVE: Firms rally to combat ‘religious liberty’ bills


A public campaign by some of the biggest companies in the world launched Wednesday in Georgia, aimed at assuring gay employees and customers ahead of one of the latest legislative battles over religious freedom and gay rights.

Google, banking giant SunTrust and AT&T have joined stalwarts including Delta Air Lines, Home Depot and UPS among nearly 100 businesses and universities that have signed on to the effort so far, which they have jointly dubbed “Georgia Prospers.”

It marks the first organized effort by business and education leaders against a “religious liberty” push at the state Capitol that many in the gay community fear could allow discrimination — and that the corporate world fears would make an economic pariah of the Peach State. Religious liberty supporters, however, cast it as a new line of defense to protect people of any religion from interference.

Regardless, both sides are gearing up for battle when the state Legislature starts back to work Monday with at least three different bills that fall under the religious liberty umbrella, including one aiming to protect public employees who object to same-sex marriage.

“Part of what makes our business climate so appealing is Southern hospitality,” said Dave Stockert, the CEO of Post Properties, describing the new effort. He said the campaign was intended to make “the world … know this is a welcoming state.”

“When people feel welcome,” Stockert said, “they feel at home and more likely to want to live here, more likely to invest here, more likely to open a business here.”

The most notable legislation at the center of the religious liberty fight is Senate Bill 129, sponsored by state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus. Introduced last year after a previous effort failed, the bill has been dubbed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and asserts that government has to show a compelling interest for why its policy should override an individual’s religious freedom. It uses much of the same language as federal legislation that Congress passed in 1993 and has since been adopted in more than 20 states.

McKoon has said repeatedly that he has no anti-gay agenda with the bill, and he often uses an example of a Sikh student who would be protected from being forced to remove his turban during ROTC training to illustrate his intention. More recently, he has challenged opponents to show a case where such legislation, commonly referred to as RFRA, was successfully used to discriminate against someone. If they do, he has offered to contribute $100 to a charity of a person’s choice.

“I don’t think people who are supporting the RFRA bill are against gay Georgians,” McKoon said. “I think that concern is misplaced.”

The fight over the bill, however, comes on the heels of similar battles in Arkansas, Indiana and elsewhere. Georgia business leaders have already consulted with their Indiana counterparts over the impact of a hotly contested RFRA bill signed into law there last year.

Based on those conversations, two opponents of the RFRA effort — the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau — have separately produced studies that show Atlanta and the state could see a negative economic impact of $1 billion to $2 billion if SB 129 passes without any specific civil rights protections or anti-discriminatory language that McKoon has so far opposed.

At a panel Thursday evening, McKoon repeated his intentions. But Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, called the effort a backlash against the gay community. He also said passage could open the door on other issues: public funding for students home schooled for religious reasons; child custody battles; and businesses that may withhold health services due to religious views.

Georgia Prospers asks companies to sign a pledge saying they will welcome “all people, no matter one’s race, sex, color, national origin, ethnicity, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity,” according to a copy of the pledge obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The goal is visibility — the companies and their logos will be listed on a new website, georgiaprospers.org. And the companies are also expected to use their alliance with the group as marketing during the expected battle this year in the state Legislature.

The group has also hired Ronnie Chance, the former state Senate majority leader, to lead the organization as its executive director. Chance, once one of the state’s top Republican leaders, retired from office in 2014 and owns an Atlanta-based public relations firm.

Among the companies supporting the new effort is Cox Enterprises, the parent company of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Georgia Politics

Fulton bet in Falcons-Packers football game trades Coke for cheese
Fulton bet in Falcons-Packers football game trades Coke for cheese

Fulton County promised to “rise up” with the Atlanta Falcons this week, betting Green Bay leaders cheese for Coke that the Atlanta football team will best the Packers Sunday to make it to the Super Bowl. Declaring Wednesday Atlanta Falcons Rise Up Day, Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves led the audience at the Fulton County commission...
DeKalb Ethics Board seeks legislation to retain oversight power
DeKalb Ethics Board seeks legislation to retain oversight power

DeKalb County Board of Ethics members came up with a plan Thursday that they hope will keep the panel operating even if a lawsuit seeking to have it declared unconstitutional is successful. A lawsuit filed by former DeKalb Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, who has three pending ethics cases, alleges that the board is unconstitutional because some...
Fulton moving forward, Chairman John Eaves says in state of county
Fulton moving forward, Chairman John Eaves says in state of county

Fulton Commission Chairman John Eaves on Thursday described a litany of accomplishments for the county in 2016, touting expanded early voting, the successful passage of a transportation tax and work to overhaul the local justice system. In his State of the County address at the Georgia World Congress Center, Eaves said that, by coming together and...
Suspect in City Hall bribery case was threatened with dead rats
Suspect in City Hall bribery case was threatened with dead rats

Channel 2 Action News Investigative Reporter Jodie Fleischer and AJC Staff Writer Raisa Habersham contributed to this article. E.R. Mitchell Jr., a prominent construction contractor accused this week of paying bribes for City of Atlanta contracts, was already talking to the FBI in September 2015. Somebody knew about it and wanted him to keep quiet...
Donald Trump expects Sonny Perdue to produce ‘big results’ as ag chief
Donald Trump expects Sonny Perdue to produce ‘big results’ as ag chief

President-elect Donald Trump said Thursday that he’s expecting “big results” out of Sonny Perdue as U.S. agriculture secretary, but the former Georgia governor is largely a blank slate for many of the lawmakers who will be voting on his confirmation and working with him on farm policy. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that...
More Stories