Local lawmakers expressed their disappointment today in Gov. Nathan Deal's decision to veto a controversial faith-based bill that opponents said discriminates against same-sex couples.
In a press conference Monday morning, the two-term governor said he would not sign HB 757, known as the Free Exercise Protection Act, a comprehensive piece of legislation that drew from several religious liberty bills presented in the Georgia General Assembly during the 2016 session.
"I appreciate the efforts of the General Assembly to address these concerns, and my actions today in no way disparage their motivations on those who support this bill," he said. "Their efforts to purge this bill of any possibility that it will allow or encourage discrimination illustrates how difficult it is to legislate on something that is best left to the broad protections of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution."
Written to protect clergy and religious institutions from being forced to perform or engage in ceremonies that violate their fundamental beliefs, HB 757 was intended to strike a balance between protecting First Amendment Rights.
Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, authored the original version of HB 757.
"With all due respect to Gov. Deal, I am disappointed in his decision to veto HB 757, the Free Exercise Protection Act. This bill was the result of a great deal of negotiation and compromise to protect religious freedom without inviting discrimination," he said. "Many Georgians, particularly those in the faith community, had been asking for these protections for several years and it is disheartening to see their will overlooked."
Deal said he had no objection to Tanner's "Pastor Protection Act" that overwhelmingly passed by the House of Representatives.
"The other versions of the bill, however, contained language that could give rise to state-sanctioned discrimination," he said. "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."
House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge whose 7th District includes the northern part of Dawson County, said he shared many of the same concerns Deal expressed.
"That is why I have insisted throughout this entire debate that any measure we passed must not only protect the free exercise of religion and faith-based organizations, but also had to include clear anti-discriminatory language," Ralston said in a statement. "I believed, and still do, that HB 757 met the test we shared."
Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, called the veto "disappointing."
"We are living in interesting times. The General Assembly worked with many diverse organizations all over Georgia on this legislation for three years and passed a comprehensive bill that protected everyone's religious freedom that was similar to numerous other states in the nation," he said.
While a setback, Tanner said he is "confident that Georgians will continue to advocate for the freedom to worship as they choose."
Several big money operations from Coca Cola, Apple, The Home Depot, Disney and Delta Airlines to the National Football League and the state's burgeoning movie industry, urged Deal to veto the legislation.
Deal said his decision was not a reaction to insults or threats, but one "based on solid reasons that are not inflamed by emotion."
"Some of those in the religious community who support this bill have resorted to insults that question my moral convictions and my character. Some within the business community who oppose this bill have resorted to threats of withdrawing jobs from our state," he said. "I do not respond well to insults or threats.
"As I've said before, I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia, of which my family and I have been a part of for all of our lives."
Proponents of the bill criticized Deal of caving to corporate institutions that pledged they would quit doing business in Georgia if he signed the bill into law.
"Today, we saw exactly why our government needs committed conservatives who never stop fighting to protect the Constitution," said Sen. Mike Crane, who is running for U.S. Congress in the District 3. "The announcement by Gov. Deal is another example of how the political class is bought and paid for by corporations and lobbyists.
"Rather than standing up and protecting the First Amendment, the political class would rather sacrifice those rights to keep the money flowing."
Minutes after learning of Deal's intention to veto the bill, Crane said the fight was not over.
"Today I am calling for a special session to override the governor's veto and protect the First Amendment rights of law abiding and hardworking voters throughout this state," he said.
The Georgia General Assembly adjourned for the year on Thursday, though a special session could be called with a three-fifths majority vote in both chambers.
Overriding the governor's veto requires a two-thirds vote in the House and the Senate.
The Georgia Chamber of Commerce issued a statement in support of the veto.
"The Georgia Chamber agrees with Gov. Deal's thoughtful reasoning to veto HB757," said Hank Linginfelter, board chairman. "While we thank members of the General Assembly for their efforts to find a balanced approach, we believe this action ensures that Georgia continues to be a welcoming state to live and do business."