On Tuesday, 20 Republican Georgia state senators dropped SB 233, a bill many are calling this year’s “religious freedom” bill. By Thursday, however, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal had already vowed to veto it. This is no real surprise considering Governor Deal vetoed a similar bill last year after it evoked large-scale opposition across the state and the country as well as threats of boycotts.
This year’s bill would import language from the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) into state law. Passage would create a potential religious exemption into each and every law in the state of Georgia and could result in government-sanctioned discrimination. For example, we fear it could allow individuals and businesses to use their religious beliefs to discriminate in hiring, refuse to provide lifesaving healthcare, deny employees access to contraception insurance, refuse counseling to vulnerable youth, and more.
On Wednesday morning, when the bill was formally introduced in the Senate, its sponsor made a surprising but unsuccessful power-play. After the bill was assigned to the Senate Rules Committee— a move to get around the usually more challenging review by the Judiciary Committee— Senator Marty Harbin called for a vote to engross the bill. Once a bill is engrossed, it cannot be amended. Engrossing a bill upon introduction is an unusual move. Ultimately the motion was defeated in a bipartisan vote, but it signals more aggressive moves ahead from supporters of the bill and those who wish to sanction discrimination in the name of religion.
Then, the very next day Deal told reporters: “I didn’t want there to be any confusion about where I stand on the RFRA bill: I have no desire or appetite to entertain that legislation.” He later added: “This is not something that is part of my agenda, and it’s something I do not view as being beneficial to the state.”
Deal appears to be heading off a similar debate that embroiled Georgia last year over a more broadly written "religious freedom" bill, HB 757. That bill went through many iterations before finally becoming a hybrid state First Amendment Defense Act and Pastor Protection Act with language that allowed for discrimination in hiring, which would have allowed individuals, businesses, and taxpayer-funded organizations to ignore state and local laws to that conflict with their belief that marriage is “between a man and a woman” and that “sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.” The backlash from activists, businesses, and celebrities was tremendous, including the threat of boycott from Disney, a warning that the bill jeopardized future Super Bowl bids from the National Football League, and the relocation of Georgia-based tech company 373k. Governor Deal ultimately vetoed the bill, saying "I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia of which my family and I are a part of for all of our lives."
We applaud Governor Deal for taking a stand against discrimination. It's clear that he's taken the lessons of the past to heart, and will refuse to take his state down the same ruinous path as last year. Learn more about why states should not adopt the federal RFRA here.
Follow Kate Perelman online at @pereka