The outcry after the Georgia General Assembly passed an anti-gay "religious freedom" bill late Wednesday was immediate and harsh. LGBT activists shrieked, business groups groaned and everyone turned their gaze to Gov. Nathan Deal.
The governor has until May 3 to sign, veto or allow the bill to become law without his signature. He said recently that he would reject any bill that allows discrimination. House Speaker David Ralston had pledged to hammer out a compromise "that we can feel good about as a state" but the legislation that passed on Wednesday fell far short of that mark.
The reaction to the legislature's surprise passage of the rewritten Free Exercise Protection Act – it came without warning on Wednesday and was sent to the governor in a matter of hours – was swift.
"It’s truly an abomination that in this day and age we’re even considering legislation that would codify LGBT discrimination into state law – let alone watching a majority of Georgia lawmakers vote 'yes' on shameful bills like FADA," Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality and director of Georgia Unites Against Discrimination, told supporters.
"But one person can still stop this: Governor Deal. He’s already said he would reject any legislation that would even appear to allow discrimination in Georgia—and let’s be clear: this bill does that and much more, explicitly legalizing LGBT discrimination in the name of religion," Graham added.
Graham, in a separate statement, said the legislation ignores the coalition of business leaders, progressive groups and clergy that have spoken out against it.
“Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen an unprecedented chorus of unexpected allies come together to speak out against HB 757, the License to Discriminate. Conservatives, legal experts, people of faith, businesses and more than 75,000 Georgians expressed their strong opposition to legislation which threatens our state’s economy and reputation, and which very clearly singles out LGBT people and others for harm,” Graham said.
“It’s shameful that lawmakers in the House ignored this feedback and, rather than taking steps to mitigate any potential fallout, actually made a bad bill worse," he added.
Simone Bell, a lesbian and former state lawmaker, called the legislation "deeply discriminatory."
“We are deeply disappointed that the Georgia House and Senate passed HB 757 and we urge Governor Deal to veto this discriminatory bill," Bell, now Lambda Legal's Southern Regional Director, said in a prepared statement. "This is still a terrible bill and it is nowhere near a solution. It is equally as divisive and harmful as the bill that is opposed by hundreds of ministers, thousands of employers, and tens of thousands of Georgians."
Bell said the rewritten legislation replaced "a bad bill with another bad bill."
“And this is a very bad bill. It invites discrimination and encourages lawsuits. It is targeted at the LGBT community but will sweep in others. It purports to excuse anyone from following the law if they claim it burdens their religion," Bell said.
Georgia Democrats also blasted the legislation, calling it a disgraceful moment for the state.
“Republican lawmakers should be ashamed of this small-minded piece of legislation," Michael Smith, communications director for the state party, said in a prepared statement. "If this bill is signed into law, today will be looked back upon as one of our state’s most disgraceful moments in modern history. Georgia has been down the road of discrimination before, and it did not end well."
Smith said the legislation is nothing more than "an economic stimulus for attorneys."
“Discrimination and exclusion are not Georgia values, and history has shown that hope and progress always win," he said.
The Metro Atlanta Chamber also issued a strong statement critical of the legislation.
The Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association, which has lobbied against "religious freedom" legislation in the past, said it's "concerned" about the bill passed on Wednesday. Via the AJC:
Georgia’s top corporations – Delta, Home Depot and such – have yet to weigh in. But the Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association, a guardian of the state’s convention and tourism industry, sent out this note last night, giving Deal at least a little breathing space:
“We acknowledge this has been a contentious debate and we appreciate the House and Senate doing their best to address the concerns of their constituents,” said Jim Sprouse, GHLA’s executive director. “We are concerned that what began as a conscientious effort to protect our state’s pastors has become something much more dramatic that could adversely impact Georgia as a top state in which to do business.
“We urge Georgia’s best legal minds to examine the impact — both intended and otherwise — of this legislation.”
Takya Browning, president of Augusta Pride, called the legislation a "shameful bill."
"In June of 2015, we celebrated the victory of marriage equality together. Yesterday, Georgia took a step backwards to permit discrimination against the LGBT community," Browning said in a statement. "While our hopes turn to a potential veto by the governor of this harmful legislation, we must not forget that the fight continues. There will be renewed and vigorous attempts to deny our rights, but we must remain vigilant in our pursuit of equality in all aspects of our lives."
"Augusta Pride stands with the Georgia legislators that voted against this shameful bill," Browning added.
The Human Rights Campaign, which has been involved with Atlanta-based groups in lobbying against "religious freedom" legislation, also criticized the bill.
"Shockingly, the decision by the legislature today was to make an egregious and discriminatory bill even worse," HRC President Chad Griffin said in a prepared statement. "It's appalling that anti-equality extremists in the legislature are trying to ignore the will of the people of Georgia, and to empower businesses with the explicit right to discriminate and deny service to LGBT Americans."
"Corporate leaders in Georgia and across the country have already spoken out against this bill because the First Amendment already protects religious freedom. It's time for Governor Deal to veto H.B. 757. Anything other than a swift veto is only courting an Indiana-style backlash," Griffin added.
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff also criticized the bill. Benioff slammed earlier legislation and threatened to reassess the company's operations in Atlanta as anti-gay "religious freedom" legislation moved through the legislature.
One again Georgia is trying to pass laws that make it legal to discriminate. When will this insanity end? https://t.co/4jBrNJtCz8— Marc Benioff (@Benioff) March 17, 2016
And Georgia Prospers, a coalition of nearly 500 businesses supporting workplace equality, also criticized the legislation.
Mayor Kasim Reed, a former state senator who was on hand for the Senate debate on Wednesday and talked with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, said a day later that the legislation will hurt Atlanta and the rest of the state. Via the AJC:
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who has long opposed the measure, told our AJC colleague Scott Trubey he was “inundated” with calls about the measure from local and national business leaders on Wednesday night. He said they were universally “stunned” that lawmakers would adopt the legislation given the fallout over a similar proposal in Indiana.
“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,” said Reed, a former state senator. “I’m trying to be very respectful of my colleagues in the Legislature, but 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.”
10 House Republicans vote against bill
If there was an upside to the votes on Wednesday, Georgia Republicans for the Future – a coalition that has opposed the "religious freedom" legislation – said it came as 10 House Republicans voted against House Bill 757. The list included Rep. Allen Peake, a Republican from Macon who has a gay brother and has spoken out against legislation that would discriminate against LGBT people.
The GOP group, in a statement from its director Allen Fox, applauded those lawmakers and urged Deal to veto the legislation.
On Wednesday 10 House Republican lawmakers broke rank with leadership in voting down a dangerous proposal that would give broad license to discriminate and erase local power.
Together, these legislators represent the new face of the Republican Party. Together, they honor the limited government tradition of the Republican Party.
Georgia Republicans for the Future commends these legislators for demonstrating uncommon courage in the political arena by standing on the side of individual and economic freedom.
And for the sake of our growing Republican Party and Georgia’s distinction as the “Best Place in the Nation to Do Business,” we urge Governor Deal to uphold his commitment to veto any bill that discriminates.
Other House Republicans that voted against the legislation included Reps. Beth Beskin, Rich Golick, Gerald Greene, Chuck Martin, BJ Pak, John Pezold, Tom Taylor, Joe Wilkinson and Chuck Williams. Rep. Rusty Kidd, an Independent, causes with the GOP and also voted against the bill.
In the Senate, Sen. JaNice VanNess was the only Republican to vote against the bill.