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Ga. Governor to veto religious liberty bill

ATLANTA (BP) — Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s March 28 announcement that he will veto the state’s religious liberty bill has provoked criticism from social conservatives, including Southern Baptists.

Mike Griffin, public affairs representative for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, told Baptist Press that Deal, a Republican, “missed an opportunity to stand for Georgia values as opposed to Wall Street and Hollywood values. We certainly respect his right to make that decision, but we also respect the right to voice our disappointment with it.”

House Bill 757 — the Free Exercise Protection Act — combined elements of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a First Amendment Defense Act and a Pastor Protection Act.

Griffin said explicit protections for wedding service providers like bakers and florists were removed from the measure’s final version, but one section stipulating no individual would be forced to participate in a same-sex wedding could perhaps be applied to for-profit businesses.

Homosexual rights activists and corporations, including Apple, Coca Cola, Hollywood studios and the NFL, had called on Deal to veto the bill. The NFL suggested adoption of the measure could disqualify Atlanta from contention to host a future Super Bowl.

Deal, in announcing his veto at a news conference, said “there has not been a single instance” to his knowledge of persons or organizations of faith in Georgia being forced to act against their consciences in ways referenced by the bill. He suggested the First Amendment and the Declaration of Independence are sufficient to protect religious liberty.

Griffin countered Deal by providing BP with a document listing 14 alleged “recent examples of religious discrimination in Georgia,” including denial of permission to begin a religious student club at an Atlanta middle school and a requirement in Ellijay, Ga., that organizers of a prayer chain obtain a permit before praying on the sidewalk. Griffin conceded that none of the 14 examples pertain to same-sex marriage.

Deal, a Southern Baptist, said of the bill, “This is about the character of our state and the character of its people. 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. 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.”

“For that reason,” Deal said, “I will veto HB 757.”

The governor criticized both “those in the religious community” who “have resorted to insults that question my moral convictions and my character” as well as those in business who “have resorted to threats of withdrawing jobs from our state.”

To override Deal’s veto would require a two-thirds vote in each house of the state legislature — a mark of which the bill narrowly fell short in both the House and Senate. To override the veto prior to the 2017 legislative session, three-fifths of each house must vote to reconvene, Griffin said.

Russell Moore, president of Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, tweeted that Deal’s “sell-out to big business pressure on religious freedom [is] one more example of what serving Mammon does to the common good.”

Moore added Deal’s “veto of religious liberty protection is shameful.”

Ryan Anderson, a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, wrote in an online commentary that Deal “bought into” nonsensical arguments from the cultural left “hook, line and sinker.”

“Protecting minority rights after major social change” like the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage is “a hallmark of American tolerance and pluralism,” Anderson wrote. “But Deal seems unwilling to do anything that might protect such people and their rights. And big business and special interests on the Left seem intent on doing everything to make sure people are coerced by the government into violating their beliefs.”

A March 21-24 poll conducted by Clout Research found two-thirds of Georgians agree with the Free Exercise Protection Act while just 27 percent disagree.

For BP’s detailed report on the Free Exercise Protection Act, click here.