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Weeks of debate ahead over Georgia ‘religious liberty’ bill

The Georgia Legislature’s sudden passage of a bill intended to shield opponents of same-sex marriage from last year’s landmark Supreme Court ruling ignited a fierce and growing pushback from corporate leaders and gay rights activists urging Gov. Nathan Deal to block the bill.

Some of Georgia’s most influential companies warned of devastating consequences if Deal were to sign the “religious liberty” legislation that swept through the statehouse Wednesday in mere hours, and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed warned it would cause “terrible harm” to the state’s business reputation.

At the same time, supporters rallied behind the measure. Religious conservatives showered the Legislature with praise, and the state GOP, noting that its activists overwhelmingly passed a resolution supporting the bill, applauded lawmakers “for listening to grassroots Republicans and for working together to pass this vitally important piece of legislation.”

The governor has until May 3 to decide whether to sign the legislation, raising the prospect of seven weeks of heavy, highly publicized lobbying by all sides. The two-term Republican has previously voiced concern over the legislation, saying he would reject any measure that legalizes discrimination. But his stance on this bill, which only arrived on some legislators’ desks minutes before the vote, remains an open question.

“Short of living through it themselves, no one can truly understand the unique pressure an executive feels over contentious legislation,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a Republican operative and the former top aide to Sonny Perdue when he was governor. “But that’s the difficult job for which they signed up. More importantly, that’s the difficult job that’s been entrusted to them by their constituents.”

Debate years in the making

Georgia lawmakers have wrestled for years over the legislation, which is seen by some conservatives as an answer to the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage but by corporate leaders and gay rights activists as state-sanctioned discrimination.

The outside pressure began almost as soon as the “compromise” legislation emerged.

That version, which swiftly passed both legislative chambers, would allow faith-based organizations to deny services to those who violate their “sincerely held religious belief” and preserve their right to fire employees who aren’t in accord with those beliefs.

It would also require government to prove a “compelling governmental interest” before it interferes with a person’s exercise of religion, and it includes a clause saying it could not be used to allow discrimination banned by state or federal law.

On Thursday, the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition launched robo-calls urging people to call Deal’s office and tell the governor to support the bill. Virginia Galloway, the group’s Southern regional director, rejected as “hyperbole” statements by the business community and others that the bill allows discrimination.

“It is very reasonable and it respects the rights of all people,” she said.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber, the state’s most influential business voice, said the measure is “in conflict with the values of diversity and inclusion that Georgians hold dear” and could erode the state’s business reputation. The Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association called for the “best legal minds” to examine the potential unintended consequences.

“At the end of the day, it hurts Georgians because it impacts jobs,” said Larry Gellerstedt, the CEO of Cousins Properties and a recent past chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s board. “I don’t know how anyone can disagree with that.”

“If we have to argue the legal merits of whether a bill discriminates or not,” he added, “it clearly shows we’ve not found the right balance.”

Reed, who has long opposed the measure, said he was “inundated” with calls about the bill from local and national business leaders on Wednesday night.

“I can’t express the amount of damage that is being done to Atlanta and Georgia’s reputation as the business center and cultural center of the Southeast,” the mayor said, adding: “I’m not going to pretend that this bill or the amendments to the bill will mitigate the terrible harm that is being done to our city, our region, our state by this legislation.”

International firms are taking note, too. Yelp co-founder Jeremy Stoppelman urged Deal to veto the measure. And Marc Benioff, the chief executive of the tech firm Salesforce who led the charge against similar legislation in Indiana, warned of a blowback.

His take on Twitter: “Once again, Georgia is trying to pass laws that make it legal to discriminate. When will this insanity end?”

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Salesforce called on Deal to veto the bill, and it said if the bill becomes law, the company will have to reduce investments in Georgia, including moving the Salesforce Connections conference to a state that provides a more welcoming environment for the LGBTQ community.”

More remains on Deal’s plate

Rarely has such a high-profile measure had such an uncertain fate on Deal’s watch. Other contentious bills, such as the “guns everywhere” legislation in 2014 and the immigration crackdown in 2011, were signed into law with little suspense after Deal telegraphed his intentions.

As the debate over the proposal rocked the Legislature over the past few sessions, Deal has swung from pointed reminders that the bill isn’t part of his agenda to advice to lawmakers on how to craft legislation he would sign. That changed, though, when he offered a blunt critique earlier this month of an earlier version.

In remarkably stark terms, the governor said he would reject any measure that “allows discrimination in our state in order to protect people of faith.” Rooting his critique in biblical terms, he urged fellow Republicans to take a deep breath and “recognize that the world is changing around us.”

The late changes to the bill have left it unclear whether the new legislation assuaged the governor’s concerns or sharpened them. His office didn’t offer many clues as the bill surged through the Legislature.

“The governor has been clear on the issue and will review the legislation in April during bill review,” Deal spokeswoman Jen Talaber Ryan said.

On the one hand, the “religious liberty” debate resonates like few others among the hardened activists that make up Georgia’s Republican core.

The state GOP’s delegates gave the legislation a ringing endorsement at its 2015 convention, and lawmakers are eager for base-pleasing measures in an election year. What’s more, Deal is also mindful that he’ll need rank-and-file Republicans to support his plan to “revolutionize” the state’s education system.

On the other, Deal has zealously guarded the state’s pro-business reputation, which he often says has made Georgia the “No. 1 place in the nation to do business.” A corporate stampede mirroring the unrest that erupted when similar legislation was adopted in Indiana would do little to bolster that case. Deal, too, is the rare politician who doesn’t have to worry about ticking off the base; he is term-limited and never has to face the voters again.

Tanenblatt, the former Perdue aide, has some advice for the governor as he navigates the uproar.

“The next seven weeks will likely be punctuated by sharp and divisive rhetoric,” Tanenblatt said. “But it’s the governor’s responsibility — and challenge — to see beyond that and do what’s right for the state. I’m confident he’ll do that.”

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