Georgia governor opposes new ‘religious liberty’ bill

Gov. Nathan Deal was unequivocal in his opposition to a revived “religious liberty” measure on Thursday, signaling he would veto the bill if it made it to his desk.

“I didn’t want there to be any confusion about where I stand on the RFRA bill: I have no desire or appetite to entertain that legislation,” Deal said.

He was referring to a one-page proposal introduced this week by state Sen. Marty Harbin that brought the debate over the legislation back to the forefront. Harbin’s measure would require the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 to apply in Georgia.

The governor on Wednesday said the state must take an “extremely cautious” approach to the measure but also said it was “only fair that we give it due consideration.” A day later, though, Deal’s position had hardened as he criticized Harbin’s proposal in unsparing terms.

“Our state is doing exceptionally well and we’ve seen rather disastrous consequences from other states who have made a departure on that issue,” he said. “I see no reason or justification for us to do anything further.”

An uphill climb

Harbin’s measure is significantly scaled down from the eight-page bill that Deal vetoed last year, in part to make it harder for the governor to oppose. Deal, while a member of Congress, voted for the federal version of the legislation that Harbin’s measure addresses.

Even though it has about 20 Republican co-sponsors, the legislation faces an arduous climb in the statehouse.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston backed last year’s version of the proposal but moved this year to try to put the contentious debate behind them. Both have repeatedly said it should be up to federal lawmakers — and not state ones — to tackle the debate that’s divided the Legislature for more than three years.

In a clear sign that he is still queasy with the measure, Cagle assigned Harbin’s proposal, Senate Bill 233, to a committee on Wednesday that gives him and his allies more control over whether the bill moves forward.

The legislation has taken on various forms over time, but supporters typically want Georgia to join the 21 other states that have similar laws they say will protect people of faith from government intrusion, as well as strengthen legal protections for opponents of gay marriage.

Harbin and other supporters say that, at the very minimum, Georgia should commit to upholding the 1993 RFRA legislation supported by a bipartisan group of lawmakers and signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton.

That statute requires the government to prove a “compelling governmental interest” before it interferes with a person’s exercise of religion. A 1997 U.S. Supreme Court ruling concluded that the law doesn’t apply to the states, and dozens of legislatures have since passed their own versions to cover actions by state governments.

State Sen. Josh McKoon, one of the most outspoken advocates for the legislation, said Republican lawmakers owe it to their constituents to vote on the measure.

“Almost every Republican legislator I know of with a contested election last year campaigned on religious freedom legislation,” McKoon said. “Can anyone credibly say if a Democratic governor was threatening a veto of SB 233 that there would be any hesitation among Republican legislators moving forward? Of course not.”

Not ‘part of my agenda’

The opponents, including powerful business boosters and gay rights groups, warn the measure amounts to legalized discrimination and point to executives from  dozens of big-name companies, including Apple, Disney and Time Warner, who called on the governor to veto the bill.

And they’ve been quick to cite Indiana and North Carolina as cautionary tales. Indiana still faces economic aftershocks after passing similar legislation in 2015, while North Carolina has been at the center of a raging national debate — and the loss of high-profile sports and cultural events — after adopting a much broader measure involving transgenders using bathrooms.

Deal, too, invoked the struggles in both those states when pressed on his stance for this year’s legislative proposal. In two separate interviews, he tacked to his veto message from last year, in which he said “religious liberty” legislation threatens to undercut Georgia’s pro-business environment and its welcoming image.

“This is not something that is part of my agenda,” he said, “and it’s something I do not view as being beneficial to the state.”

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