Georgia Governor Nathan Deal appeased the film and television industry Monday morning by announcing his plan to veto House Bill 757, called the “Free Exercise Protection Act,” but he also indicated his displeasure at threats and insults from the business and faith communities, which were intended to influence Deal’s decision on whether to veto or sign HB 757.
“Some of those in the religious community who support this bill have resorted to insults that question my moral convictions and my character,” Deal said. “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.”
Last week, media outlets were crammed with reports of named and unnamed spokespeople speaking against HB 757, including some that said Disney would pull all of its operations, including the Marvel productions currently being filmed at Pinewood Atlanta Studios in Fayetteville, out of Georgia if Deal signed the Free Exercise Protection Act into law.
Other organizations, including Coca-Cola, The Home Depot and even the National Football League voiced opposition to HB 757, with the NFL reportedly saying Atlanta might lose any bid to host the Super Bowl if HB 757 passed.
HB 757 as passed by the Georgia General Assembly on Mar. 16 spelled out a minister’s right to refuse to perform any kind of wedding that violated his or her religious convictions. The bill would have also prohibited government from pressuring any business to open on “days of rest” (Saturdays and Sundays), it would have allowed religious organizations to turn away renters or facility users who have different religious values, and it would have protected a religious organization’s right to strictly employ people of like faith.
Deal said HB 757 was “unnecessary,” insisting that Georgians are already protected from the stated concerns by the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution.
“While most people would agree that government should not force such actions, there has not been a single instance of such taking place in Georgia,” Deal said. “The examples being cited by the proponents of this bill have occurred in other states that have very different laws than Georgia.”
Deal cited the example from Colorado in which a bakery refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. “There the court ruling was based on Colorado’s Public Accommodation Act which prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation,” Deal said. “Georgia does not have a Public Accommodation Act.”
Deal also cited the example from New Mexico in which a photographer refused to photograph a same-sex wedding. “That state has a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but it was not applicable,” he said. “It was the New Mexico Human Rights Act that determined the results in that case. Georgia does not have a Human Rights Act.”
While he didn’t detail the differences, Deal briefly noted in his Monday morning speech that he could have supported an earlier version of HB 757.
“I had no objection to the ‘Pastor Protection Act’ that was passed by the House of Representatives,” Deal said. “The other versions of the bill, however, contained language that could give rise to state-sanctioned discrimination.”
One of the biggest supporters of HB 757 was the Southern Baptist Convention, whose Georgia Baptist Mission Board is based in the Atlanta area.
Georgia Baptist Mission Board Executive Director J. Robert White on Feb. 20 issued a call for state legislators to pass HB 757, which by then had become more robust than the original, 49-line document.
“We are thankful for Representative Kevin Tanner and Speaker of the House David Ralston for presenting legislation that protects the free exercise of religion by our pastors in Georgia,” White wrote in a statement posted on the Georgia Baptist Mission Board (GBMB) website. “This protection must be guaranteed for all Georgia citizens.”
Another GBMB statement dated March 5 celebrated the passage of a state senate version called the “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”
“This legislation does not allow any forms of bigotry or discrimination but rather prevents such things against people of faith,” a portion of the statements reads.
On Friday, one day after the 2016 Legislative Session ended in Atlanta, a follow-up call to action was added to GBMB’s online post: “Governor Deal has until May 3rd to sign or veto the ‘Free Exercise Protection Act’. It is important for Georgia Baptists and all people of faith to contact Gov. Deal and ask that he support and sign the legislation. During that time he’ll also receive opposition calls from the Chamber of Commerce, activist groups and big business… it is important that he her our voice as well.”
Hours after Deal announced he would veto HB 757, White speaking personally and on behalf of GBMB said, “We’re disappointed.
“We’ve got a lot of good Baptists in Fayette County and around the state who worked hard to support House Bill 757,” White said. “We’re certainly disappointed.”
White, who has been GBMB’s executive director and CEO since 1993, said he is concerned about the potential for discrimination against Baptists and others who live by and make daily decisions based on biblical values. He said the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution doesn’t necessarily apply at the state level. “That’s why the regulations are necessary in the states,” he said.
While White did not disparage Gov. Deal’s character, he did express his disapproval of his decision.
“He had a great opportunity to protect religious freedom,” White said. “He declined to take action.
“In my opinion, the threats from the movie industry and other industries were hollow threats,” he added.
When asked if he would like to see another Free Exercise Protection Act drafted in the future, White replied, “I definitely think it will be back next year. I think it will come back every year until something gets done. I think it’s that important.”
In the meantime, whether expressly protected by state law or not, White said his ministers will answer to God’s law over man’s law when it comes to the ministry of the church.
“Our pastors are not going to be marrying gay people,” White said.