Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has spoken out forcefully against the “religious liberty” bill pending in the state legislature, a bill that would allow businesses and individuals to cite religious beliefs about marriage as justification for discrimination.
Deal, who has largely stayed out of the debate over the so-called First Amendment Defense Act, today “issued his strongest warning yet” on the bill, and “made clear that he wouldn’t be disappointed if even a variation of that measure fails to pass the Legislature when the session ends in late March,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.
The bill is “not one of those issues that I have been pushing,” the Republican governor said after a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a government building today, the paper reports. He said religious freedom could be protected without encouraging or enabling discrimination, and he went on to invoke the Bible.
“We do not have a belief in my way of looking at religion that says we have to discriminate against anybody,” he said, noting that Jesus Christ reached out to the social outcasts of his time. “If you were to apply those standards to the teaching of Jesus, I don’t think they fit.”
A passage in the Gospel of John about Jesus’ outreach makes the point, he said, “that we have a belief in forgiveness and that we do not have to discriminate unduly against anyone on the basis of our own religious beliefs.”
Freedom for All Americans, a coalition of groups focused on fighting anti-LGBT discrimination, praised Deal's words. “His comments send a message to lawmakers that Georgia doesn’t need a divisive bill that does nothing to advance religious freedom, but does allow for discrimination against LGBT people and that does hurt the state’s economy,” executive director Matt McTighe said in a press release.
The measure, House Bill 757, would prevent state or local governments from taking punitive action against any “faith-based organization,” which can include for-profit businesses, that discriminates because of a religious belief about marriage, “including the belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a union.” It’s aimed primarily at protecting business owners that don’t wish to provide goods or services for the weddings of same-sex couples, but it could also enable discrimination in employment and other areas.
Georgian has no statewide law prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination, but some cities in the state do, including Atlanta.
The bill started as the Pastor Protection Act, which purports to protect the right of clergy members to refuse to perform any marriage that conflicts with their religious beliefs — a right already guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. That was passed by the state House and sent to the Senate, which last month consolidated the First Amendment Defense Act with it. Therefore, it has to go to the House for another vote; if the House passes it, it would go to Deal for a signature or veto.
In recent days many large businesses have spoken out against the bill, among them Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola, Home Depot, UPS, and Cox Enterprises, all of which have headquarters in Atlanta.
Also, Wednesday a coalition called Georgia Unites Against Discrimination delivered more than 75,000 letters to Deal's office from Georgians who oppose the legislation.