Georgia Governor Vetoes Controversial “Religious Liberty” Bill

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Amid pressure from civil rights groups and private industry, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal has vetoed a controversial piece of legislation that would have allowed religious groups and individuals to deny services to same-sex couples and for faith-based employers to not hire someone based on their sexual orientation.

HB 757 [PDF], which passed the Georgia House and Senate earlier this month, sought to exempt religious officials from performing marriage ceremonies, rites, or administering sacraments “in violation of their legal right to free exercise of religion.”

It also would have given religious organizations the ability to deny LGBT customers the right to rent their property out “for an event which is objectionable.”

Religious organizations could also would have provided that “no faith based organization shall be required to hire or retain as an employee any person whose religious beliefs or practices or lack of either are not in accord with the faith based organization’s sincerely held religious belief as demonstrated by practice, expression, or clearly articulated tenet of faith.”

Perhaps most bizarrely, the law explicitly states the obvious: “All individuals shall be free to attend or not attend, at their discretion, the solemnization of any marriage.” This is the first we’ve heard of a law attempting to codify that you don’t have to attend a wedding.

The legislation was widely opposed by the LGBT community, human rights organizations, consumer advocates, and several private businesses responsible for lots of money in Georgia, like Coca-Cola, Delta, the NFL, Disney, Apple, Intel, UPS, and AMC Networks, producers of The Walking Dead, which has been filmed in Georgia for its entire run.

This morning, Gov. Deal explained his decision to veto the bill, saying that no one could show him any examples of a religious group being forced to perform a wedding ceremony or rent out their church to a same-sex couple.

“If there has been any case of this type in our state it has not been called to my attention,” wrote Deal, who noted that two commonly cited examples — the wedding photographer in New Mexico who refused to photograph a same-sex couple, and the Colorado bakery that balked on baking a cake for a same-sex wedding reception — involved private businesses in different states with laws that explicitly prohibit this sort of behavior.

Deal also discusses the evolution of this legislation, which he originally supported under the banner of a bill aimed at preventing pastors from being compelled to perform marriages they object to.

“The other versions of the bill, however, contained language that could give rise to state sanctioned discrimination,” notes the governor. “I did have problems with that and made my concerns known as did many other individuals and organizations, including some within the faith based community.”

Deal cites the Declaration of Independence, noting that “Man’s Creator had endowed all men ‘with certain unalienable rights,’ including ‘Liberty’ which embraces religious liberty. They made it clear that those liberties were given by God and not by man’s government. Therefore, it was unnecessary to enumerate in statue or constitution what those liberties included.”

The governor contends he was not motivated by pressure from either side of this issue.

“Some of those in the religious community who support this bill have resorted to insults that question my moral convictions and my character,” he explains. “Some within the business community who oppose this bill have resorted to threats of withdrawing jobs from our state. I do not respond well to insults or threats.”

“Georgia is a welcoming State filled with warm, friendly and loving people. Our cities and countryside are populated with people who worship God in a myriad of ways and in very diverse settings,” concludes Deal. “Our people work side by side without regard to the color of our skin, or the religion we adhere to. We are working to make life better for our families and our communities. That is the character of Georgia. I intend to do my part to keep it that way.”

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