The Relationship Between Guns, Religious Liberty, and the Opportunity School District

Political capital is an odd commodity. In some cases, you can spend it, and end up with more than what you started with. Governor Deal’s promotion of criminal justice reform earned him votes in 2014 that he would not otherwise have had. In other cases, spending it the wrong way can quickly deplete your account. Think of George W Bush pushing for Social Security reform following his re-election in 2004. And in any case, political capital is a wasting asset which declines to zero the closer one gets to lame duck status.

After Governor Deal gave tacit approval to an effort to allow guns on college campuses, the General Assembly passed a campus carry bill, allowing those 21 and older who possessed a concealed carry permit to take their guns to classrooms, and almost anywhere else, save dorms and athletic events. After the bill passed both houses, the governor said he couldn’t support the measure unless it was clear that it didn’t apply to on-campus day care centers, or at campuses that have high school students taking classes under dual enrollment programs.

Legislators appear to be unwilling to make changes to the campus carry bill. By refusing to make changes, the governor will be forced to decide whether to spend his political capital on a veto of the bill, or to let it become law as is. If he decides to use his veto pen, legislators will be able to tell voters at home that they supported campus carry, but the governor was the bad guy who vetoed the bill.

On Wednesday, the General Assembly passed the Free Exercise Protection Act, which combined elements of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Pastor Protection Act and the First Amendment Defense Act into a measure intended to settle the three year debate over religious liberty in the Peach State. Prior to the introduction of the compromise measure, the governor stated he would veto a religious liberty bill that allowed discrimination.

Almost predictably, those supporting the measure say it doesn’t enable discrimination. They point out that the measure requires religious organizations entering into contracts with government to provide a service such as a homeless shelter must follow any anti-discrimination provisions in the contract. They point to a line in the RFRA portion of the bill that forbids “invidious discrimination on any grounds prohibited by federal or state law.” Opponents of the bill claim it could trump local anti-discrimination ordinances, such as the one in the city of Atlanta. They say that other portions of the bill allow religious organizations to discriminate in hiring and in providing social benefits.

The governor will have to decide whether the bill permits discrimination or not. If he signs the bill, he will have to spend his political capital convincing businesses that it isn’t discriminatory, and that Georgia remains the best state in which to do business. On the other hand, a veto will cost him a lot of his remaining political capital with voters concerned about religious freedom.

Much has been said about how Governor Deal no longer needs to face the voters in an election, and how that affords him some freedom to act that he would not have had otherwise. That fact should give him some flexibility in deciding how to spend his remaining political capital.

However, there is one piece of unfinished business needed to cement the governor’s legacy: the Opportunity School District. In order for it to become a reality, voters will need to approve the constitutional amendment enabling the OSD in November. Getting that approval will require some political capital from the governor. How much political capital Governor Deal has left to spend on promoting the Opportunity School District as we move towards November will be determined by how he spends it in deciding the fate of the campus carry and religious liberty bills.


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