In a ten minute press conference, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal announced that he will veto House Bill 757, the Free Exercise Protection Act. “I do not think that we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith based community in Georgia of which I and my family have been a part of for all of our lives,” the governor said before announcing his decision. “Our actions on House Bill 757 are not just about protecting the faith based community. or providing a business friendly climate for job growth in Georgia. I believe it is about the character of our state and the character of our people.”
In his announcement, he cited concerns of the religious community over the case of a New Mexico photographer who refused to take pictures of a same-sex wedding, and a baker in Colorado who refused to bake a cake for a same sex ceremony. However, Deal noted that both states had civil rights or public accomodations law that Georgia lacks.
“Had the bill been the so-called Pastor Protection Act that passed the House of Representatives, I would have signed it,” the governor said. “However other versions of the bill contained language that caused me some concern as it caused many others concern,. that they may in fact encourage or allow discrimination that is sanctions by the state.”
Governor Deal said he appreciated the efforts of the General Assembly to come up with a bill that would not allow discrimination, noting how difficult it is to legislate something that should better be left to the broader protections of the First Amendment. He referred to the concept of “Negative Protection” adopted by the Founders, which rather than specifying what the state can do to guarantee religious freedom, instead mandates what the state cannot do — establish a religion or interfere with the free exercise thereof.
“In light of our history, said the Governor, “I find it somewhat ironic that some in the religious community today could feel that it is necessary for government to confer upon them certain rights and protections. If indeed our religious liberty is conferred upon us by God and not by man made government, then perhaps we should heed that hands-off admonition of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
Governor Deal noted that for laws regarding the expression of religion, inclusions and omissions in their statutes can lead to unintentional discrimination.
The veto is likely to increase the friction between the governor and the General Assembly, which has tried for three legislative sessions to pass some form of religious liberty legislation, ranging from a state version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act to this year’s effort led be Sen. Greg Kirk to pass a state version of the First Amendment Defense Act. Legislators have threatened to attempt to override the governor’s veto of the measure, however the success of such and effort is uncertain.
And much like the split between the Republican establishment and the grassroots that led to Donald Trump becoming a leading contender for the GOP presidential nomination, the split between the business community in Georgia and the party’s base has exposed a wound that is unlikely to heal for quite a while.