Conservative religious groups gathered in the State Capitol on Tuesday to blast Gov. Nathan Deal for killing an anti-gay “religious freedom” bill and call on lawmakers to return and override his veto.
“We are just trying to get our legislature to act on principle,” said Mike Griffin, a pastor and lobbyist for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. “We shouldn’t always try to hold someone hostage to get it done.”
“The governor just needs to do his job and respond in an appropriate way,” he added.
The religious conservatives said they felt betrayed when Deal vetoed House Bill 757. Lawmakers passed the bill on March 16 after hijacking the original bill, the Pastor Protection Act, and combining it with anti-gay provisions from the First Amendment Defense Act and a state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
When the bill passed, it sparked an avalanche of criticism from businesses, the entertainment industry and professional sports teams and a national outcry from LGBT and progressive groups. Tourism officials said some $6 billion in conferences was at stake while Hollywood productions in the state generate $1.7 billion in revenue.
Proponents of the bill said none of that should have mattered to Deal.
“I was sick and beyond disappointed when I heard about the governor’s veto,” said Virginia Galloway (top photo), the Georgia-based regional field director for the Faith & Freedom Coalition.
“We have taken on Hollywood values. We subsidize Hollywood and then they use our tax dollars to fight against the religious rights of the people of Georgia. How dare they,” she added.
Rev. Chika Omuzo of Resurrection House said Deal should ignore the outcry from businesses who threatened to leave the state over the bill.
“America was founded on Christian principles and systematically, we are moving away from the foundation. If you remove this foundation, the nation will implode,” Omuzo said.
“If we honor God in the state of Georgia, it doesn’t matter who leaves, God will bless this state,” he added.
Rev. Garland Hunt of the Fellowship of International Churches said he felt betrayed by Deal’s veto.
“He turned his back on the faith-based community in the state of Georgia,” Hunt said. “As a pastor, as a citizen, I am very upset that we elected him to present us.”
Garland said the concerns of businesses shouldn’t have mattered.
“Because of economics, he faltered on his word,” Garland said. “Find a way to protect our religious freedom and we are not going to stand for anything else.”
'It is not discrimination'
Several speakers at the morning press conference – including Tim Head of the Duluth-based Faith & Freedom Coalition – called for a special session so lawmakers could attempt to overturn Deal’s veto. At least two state senators have already called for a special session – Sen. Bill Heath on Friday and Sen. Mike Crane on Monday. During the press conference, Sen. Marty Harbin (second photo) echoed those calls.
Rep. Wes Cantrell stopped short of criticizing Deal and calling for a special session. But he blasted critics of the bill and accused them of “demagoguing” the legislation.
“We had the best and brightest legal minds that our state had to offer to help us craft a bill that has no discrimination in it,” Cantrell said. “It doesn’t matter how many times people say it does. It has been demagogued, it has been lied about, there has been deception. We have lost the argument.”
Harbin called the veto “absolutely wrong.”
“We need to call a special session. We need to represent the people, not the big business entities that say this is bad,” Harbin said. “It is not discrimination. It is freedom and liberty for the religious leaders that are here today.”
Cantrell and Harbin were among a handful of speakers who said the legislation did not discriminate. But in vetoing the bill, Deal said it did. Critics, including LGBT activists, progressive groups and lawmakers and faith leaders, have called it “a license to discriminate.”
The legislation included provisions that could not impact classes of people protected under state and federal law, but purposely left out local ordinances. LGBT people in Georgia are only protected by non-discrimination statements in about 60 local jurisdictions across the state. And in a last-ditch snub at businesses who opposed the legislation, lawmakers on Thursday tried – and failed – to hijack a bill and insert language that attacked their LGBT inclusive non-discrimination statements.
When asked about the local ordinances at the press conference, the religious activists deflected the question.
Sen. Josh McKoon, who has pushed “religious freedom” bills during the last three legislative sessions, appeared at the rally on Tuesday but did not speak.