Gov. Deal dismisses new ‘religious freedom’ bill

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A controversial “religious freedom” bill introduced Tuesday is already igniting debate at the Georgia Capitol. But a spokesperson for Gov. Nathan Deal said lawmakers shouldn't bother: He'll veto this one too.

Chris Riley, Deal's chief of staff, was quick to pour cold water on Senate Bill 233. That's the “religious freedom” bill introduced Tuesday by Sen. Marty Harbin and 18 other Republican lawmakers. Via the AJC:

But Chris Riley, Deal’s chief of staff, is unmoved.

“Everything that needs to be said on this issue was said in the veto statement last March,” Riley said.

Harbin's bill is all of 18 lines long and would add language from the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed in 1993 to state law, “to provide for the preservation of religious freedom.” But it's pulling the scab off a contentious debate that has roiled the Gold Dome for the last three legislative sessions. 

Last March Deal vetoed “religious freedom” legislation known as House Bill 757. The measure started as the mostly innocuous Pastor Protection Act – which unanimously passed the House in February – before it was hijacked by the Senate. That's where lawmakers morphed it with the anti-LGBT First Amendment Defense Act and a state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Act to create an omnibus hate bill that was quickly approved by lawmakers and sent to Deal.

In March, Deal said the legislation went the against the character of the state and would allow discrimination. He vetoed it during a statement before a hoard of media outlets.

“Our actions on House Bill 757 are not just about protecting the faith-based community or providing business friendly climate for job growth in Georgia,” Deal said in a nearly nine-minute statement made from his State Capitol office on Monday.

“I believe it is about the character of our state and the character of our people. Georgia is a welcoming state. It is full of loving, kind and generous people. And that is what we should want. They choose to worship God in the way they see fit in a myriad of ways in a variety of different settings. I believe that is our best side. And our people every day work side-by-side without regard to the color of their skin of their fellow mate or the religion that their co-worker might adhere to. They are simply trying to make life better for themselves, their families and their communities,” he said.

“That is the character of Georgia. I intend to do my part to keep it that way. For that reason, I will veto House Bill 757,” Deal added.

A few weeks later, Deal said he'd do the same thing in 2017. Then he challenged lawmakers to move on to other issues. In January, Deal said his legislative agenda didn't include revisiting “religious freedom” legislation.

All of that – along with the national scorn that came with the bill's passage last year – likely prompted Riley's dose of cold water.

Business groups also gave Deal political cover on Tuesday. Via the AJC:

Business groups quickly spoke out Tuesday against Harbin’s bill.

“Gov. Deal clearly stated in his veto statement last year why this type of legislation was already a constitutional right, unnecessary and would distract from our strong performance in creating new jobs in our state,” Katie Kirkpatrick, chief policy officer of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, and David Raynor, director of public policy at the Georgia Chamber, said in a joint statement.

There is no “new evidence to suggest this legislation is needed to strengthen a right guaranteed by our constitution,” they said, but noted that plenty of evidence exists to show the damage these types of bills can do to a state’s economy. North Carolina and other states have seen the loss of concerts, sporting events and, in some cases, jobs after passing legislation deemed discriminatory.

Not that supporters of the “religious freedom” bill were swayed. Harbin, after all, stood with anti-LGBT activists last March to scold Deal, call his veto “absolutely wrong,” push for a special session to override it, and maintain that the legislation did not discriminate against LGBT people. 

And McKoon – a champion of “religious freedom” legislation with an expanding anti-LGBT record – on Tuesday called Harbin's bill “narrowly tailored” and said it deserves a committee hearing. 

Harbin's bill hasn't yet been assigned to a Senate committee. 

UPDATE | On Wednesday, Deal told the AJC that he's “extremely cautious” about the legislation.

“We have to be extremely cautious,” said Deal. “We have benefited from the actions I took last year, and we’re still continuing to see states who have gone in other directions suffer the consequences – namely North Carolina.”

Deal said he's also concerned about any negative the legislation could have on Georgia's economy and reputation – but that's willing to “give it due consideration.”

“There is certainly something worth looking at. But there have been so many negative connotations with what have gone on in other states – Indiana, North Carolina,” Deal said. “It sounds simple on its face, but sometimes things that appear simple don’t work out that way.”

He added that he’s open to meeting with Harbin and other supporters as the legislation winds through the statehouse.

“I don’t think anyone wants our state to be put in a bad posture as a result of this kind of legislation. But I’m willing to meet with the author of the legislation and delve into what it does and doesn’t do. And I’ll keep an open mind until I have a chance to do that.”


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