The controversial rewrite of the “religious liberty” bill that swept through the Legislature in a few swift hours late Wednesday faces an uncertain fate with Gov. Nathan Deal.
In fact, rarely has such a high profile measure been such an open question on his 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.
The religious liberty bill, also known as House Bill 757, is a different story. The governor has a long and complicated relationship with the proposal, 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 legalized discrimination.
As the debate 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.
The counsel he offered in the final hours of last year’s legislative session, as a similar measure flamed out, included a demand that lawmakers include an anti-discrimination clause. As an earlier version of the legislation without that addition rocketed through the statehouse this year, infuriating corporate titans, Deal called for sweeping changes.
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.”
“We do not have a belief in my way of looking at religion that says we have to discriminate against anybody,” he said. “If you were to apply those standards to the teaching of Jesus, I don’t think they fit.”
The “compromise” legislation that emerged after Deal’s complaints is an amalgamation of several other proposals winding through the statehouse. It would allow faith-based organizations to deny services to those who violate their “sincerely held religious belief” and protect their rights to fire employees who aren’t in accord with those beliefs.
It also mirrors language found in the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which was signed by President Bill Clinton and adopted by dozens of states, requiring government to prove a “compelling governmental interest” before it interferes with a person’s exercise of religion. It also includes a clause saying it could not be used to allow discrimination banned by state or federal law.
The late changes, which surfaced just hours before lawmakers voted on them, left it unclear whether the new legislation assuaged the governor’s concerns or sharpened them. And the forceful condemnation from gay rights groups and business boosters quickly countered by a GOP statement applauding lawmakers “for listening to grassroots Republicans" only underscored the tension Deal faces over the bill.
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.
His office didn’t offer many clues late Wednesday 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.
What is clear, however, is that he'll have some time to mull it over. Because lawmakers decided not to use a parliamentary procedure to immediately transmit the measure to his desk, he’ll have until May 3 to decide.