Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (David Goldman/Associated Press)
Opinion writer

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) did the right thing vetoing a bill that would have legalized discrimination against same-sex couples in the name of so-called religious freedom. Coming on the heels of North Carolina’s legislature passing and its governor signing similar legislation last week, what Deal did is a triumph for all lovers of true liberty. His words in announcing his decision were clear and inclusive.

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 are a part of for all of our lives. Our actions on HB 757 are not just about protecting the faith-based community or providing a business-friendly climate for job growth in Georgia.

This is about the character of our State and the character of its people….

Deal’s decision comes after the business community, Hollywood and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organizations urged him to veto the legislation. And they are right to claim victory. But his veto of HB 757, which would have protected clergy, faith-based organizations and their employees from litigation for refusing to conduct a same-sex wedding or providing services “in the exercise of their rights to free exercise of religion under the Constitution of this state or of the United States,” should not have come as a surprise. Deal signaled his intentions earlier this month.

According to a March 3 story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “a remarkable moment for the governor” came during a ribbon-cutting ceremony when he waded into the issue he “largely sought to skirt.”

Standing in the lobby of a government building after a ribbon-cutting ceremony, he laid out a lengthy condemnation of the measure from a biblical perspective, first noting that he is a Southern Baptist who took religion courses at Mercer University.

“What the New Testament teaches us is that Jesus reached out to those who were considered the outcasts, the ones that did not conform to the religious societies’ view of the world … We do not have a belief in my way of looking at religion that says we have to discriminate against anybody. If you were to apply those standards to the teaching of Jesus, I don’t think they fit.”

Deal noted then that he believes in “traditional marriage.” But he went on to say, “I hope that we can all just take a deep breath, recognize that the world is changing around us, and recognize that it is important that we protect fundamental religious beliefs.” Adding, “But we don’t have to discriminate against other people in order to do that. And that’s the compromise that I’m looking for.”

[No freedom from religion for gays in Indiana]

Clearly, Deal didn’t get the compromise he was looking for. So he vetoed the legislation on Monday with the same candor he did weeks earlier. But there is a big red flag in his denunciation of the bill.

Deal notes that proponents of the discriminatory legislation cited the photographer case in New Mexico and the bakery case in Colorado as two examples of people who were successfully sued for refusing to provide services to a same-sex couple based on their religious beliefs. The governor dismissed those examples for two reasons.

First, Deal said he “[could] find no examples that any of the things this bill seeks to protect us against have ever occurred in Georgia.” Second, and most important, he said, “The cases being cited from other states occurred because those state had passed [statutes] that specifically protected their citizens from adverse actions based on their sexual orientation. Georgia has no such [statutes].”  

[This is a looming danger for full LGBT equality]

That Georgia is among 28 states with no discrimination protection for LGBT people means those folks could lose their homes and jobs simply because of who they love. The states in light green below — New Hampshire, New York and Wisconsin — each have a non-discrimination law that covers LGB. Those in dark green with a T have an all-inclusive statute that covers transgender and sexual orientation.

(Courtesy of the Movement Advancement Project)

What Deal acknowledges is another reason that a federal law extending civil rights protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity is needed.

Since I wrote about the Equality Act in January, the bill that would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the landmark anti-discrimination statute has seen modest gains. The 37 Democratic and two independent sponsors of the Senate version are now joined by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). The House version gained two sponsors, putting the number now at 174.

Unfortunately, the prognosis for such landmark legislation getting out of Congress to the president remains unchanged: “Prognosis: 0% chance of being enacted.”

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj