fb-pixel Skip to main content

ATLANTA — In a striking defeat to religious conservatives, Governor Nathan Deal said Monday that he would veto a bill intended to protect critics of same-sex marriage.

“In light of our history, I find it somewhat ironic that some in the religious community today feel that it is necessary for government to confer upon them certain rights and protections,” Deal said at the state Capitol, where he had faced intense pressure from the bill’s supporters and critics.

“If indeed our religious liberty is conferred upon us by God, and not by manmade government, perhaps we should simply heed the hands-off admonition of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the governor said.

Advertisement



Deal, a Republican in his second term, announced his decision less than two weeks after the General Assembly easily approved House Bill 757, which its supporters named the Free Exercise Protection Act.

The vote tallies from March 16, when both the state House of Representatives and the state Senate considered the bill over a stretch of a few hours, indicate that Deal’s veto is likely to stand. All but 11 Republicans in the Georgia House and Senate voted in favor; all Democrats voted against it.

Republican state Senator Mike Crane of Newnan, now running for Congress, did call for a special session to attempt to override the veto, the Associated Press reported. Another supporter, Republican Senator Josh McKoon of Columbus, said he’s disappointed, because ‘‘Governor Deal ran for office as someone the faith community could rely on.’’

By rejecting the measure, Deal has most likely sidestepped the type of economic backlash that Indiana faced last year after its governor signed a so-called religious liberty measure. (After a national outcry, Indiana officials rewrote the law.)

Hundreds of businesses and sports organizations, including Coca-Cola and the NFL, had warned Deal, explicitly or implicitly, that a decision to support the bill could jeopardize economic opportunities in Georgia. The NFL said it would be a factor in choosing whether Atlanta hosts the 2019 or 2020 Super Bowl.

Advertisement



The Walt Disney Co., Marvel Studios, and Salesforce.com also threatened to take their business elsewhere if the measure became law.

The bill was intended to offer protections to faith-based groups if they, absent certain conditions, refused to provide “social, educational or charitable services that violate” their religious beliefs. The measure also would have allowed such groups, without legal repercussions, to avoid hiring anyone whose religious beliefs conflicted with the organization’s.

Gay rights groups argued that the bill would have cloaked discrimination as a form of religious liberty.

Deal’s decision left the bill’s supporters dismayed, but not necessarily surprised.

“This is just counter to the will of the people of Georgia, and we think it’s an unfortunate decision by the governor,” said Dave Baker, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition of Georgia, which had rallied its supporters behind the bill.

Baker argued that the bill would not have allowed discrimination, and said that it was intended to offer equal protections to people across Georgia. “What we want to do is ensure no one is discriminated against,” he said.

Critics of the bill, who had mobilized their own campaign, said they were elated at what they believed was a landmark legislative victory that sent a message to lawmakers in the Deep South.

“Our message to Governor Nathan Deal was loud and clear: This deplorable legislation was bad for his constituents, bad for business, and bad for Georgia’s future,” Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, said in a statement.

Advertisement



“Today, Governor Deal heard the voices of Georgians, civil rights organizations, as well as the many leaders in the entertainment industry and private sector who condemned this attack on the fundamental rights of LGBT people, and he has set an example for other elected officials to follow,” Griffin said.

‘‘We thank Governor Deal for doing the right thing,’’ said Matt McTighe, who runs the Freedom for All Americans group, another gay rights organization. ‘‘The governor understands that while our freedom of religion is of critical importance, it doesn’t mean there’s a need for harmful exemptions that can lead to discrimination.’’

Georgia Prospers, a coalition of hundreds of companies that had lobbied aggressively against the bill, hailed Deal’s announcement.

Until Monday, it was not clear when Deal would reach a decision about the same-sex marriage measure.

The governor faced a May 3 deadline, and he had given few public hints about how he might respond to the final proposal that the General Assembly sent him.