The NFL issued a stern warning Friday to the state of Georgia and the city of Atlanta, a reminder that if a “religious liberty” bill is signed into law by the governor, it could affect whether the city is chosen to host a Super Bowl.
The bill states that, with few exceptions, the government may not “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a law, rule, regulation, ordinance or resolution of general applicability.” It would also protect faith-based groups from penalties if, in the absence of contracts, they refuse to provide “social, educational or charitable services that violate such faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious belief.” Those groups would also be protected if they chose not to hire an employee whose religious beliefs are in contrast with the organization’s.
The purpose of the bill, which has gone from the state legislature to the governor, is, according to one legislator, to provide a response to the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage. The NFL joined hundreds of businesses in Georgia that see it as discriminatory.
“NFL policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Whether the laws and regulations of a state and local community are consistent with these policies would be one of many factors NFL owners may use to evaluate potential Super Bowl host sites.”
Although the NFL rarely is vocally involved in social and political issues, it has flexed its muscles from time to time. In 1990, it moved the Super Bowl from Arizona to the Rose Bowl in California because of Arizona’s refusal to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday.
More recently, a 2014 Religious Freedom Restoration Act reached the desk of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and the NFL was prepared to move Super Bowl XLIX, saying in a statement:
“Our policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or any other improper standard. We are following the issue in Arizona and will continue to do so should the bill be signed into law, but will decline further comment at this time.”
Brewer vetoed the bill and the game was played in Arizona. The Georgia bill sits with Gov. Nathan Deal, who has said he will review it next month.
“When the Supreme Court changed the definition of marriage, dynamics changed,” state senator Greg Kirk told the New York Times. “There was a need for a law, for this law, and it took Georgia to lead the way of the country to put this law together.”
Atlanta, which has a new stadium set to open in 2017, is one of four finalists, along with New Orleans, Tampa and Miami, for the 2019 and 2020 Super Bowls. Owners will choose the sites later this year and Arthur Blank, the Falcons’ owner, echoed the NFL’s statement.
“One of my bedrock values is ‘Include Everyone’ and it’s a principle we embrace and strive to live each and every day with my family and our associates, a vast majority of which live and work in Georgia,” Blank said in a statement to the AJC. “I strongly believe a diverse, inclusive and welcoming Georgia is critical to our citizens and the millions of visitors coming to enjoy all that our great state has to offer. House Bill 757 undermines these principles and would have long-lasting negative impact on our state and the people of Georgia.”
The NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and MLB’s Atlanta Braves also weighed in on the legislation.
“The Atlanta Braves organization believes that House Bill 757 is detrimental to our community and bad for Georgia,” it said in a statement (via the AJC). “Our organization believes in an environment that is inclusive of all people. In addition to allowing discrimination against citizens of this state, the bill will have a profoundly negative impact on our organization. As a Georgia business and employer, we proudly support Georgia Prospers in its goal to ensure that the state’s workplaces and communities are diverse and welcoming for all people, no matter one’s race, sex, color, national origin, ethnicity, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. We are proud to represent Georgia and are opposed to any law that endorses discrimination against anyone.”
The Hawks echoed that.
“For generations, Atlanta has stood at the forefront of civil rights and its diversity is what has made this city a cultural leader in the Southeast,” its statement said. “The Hawks strongly believe in the values of inclusion, diversity and equal rights, core principles by which we operate our business and are essential elements in making Atlanta a leading global city.”
The NCAA agreed, with seven other states considering similar bills, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group.
“Our commitment to the fair treatment of all individuals, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, has not changed and is at the core of our NCAA values,” it said in a statement to the Kansas City Star last week. Missouri is considering such legislation. “It is our expectation that all people will be welcomed and treated with respect in cities that host our NCAA championships and events.”
A year ago, the NCAA played a strong role when a similar law was passed in Indiana, home of the organization and site of the 2015 Final Four. NCAA President Mark Emmert questioned whether the organization would continue to hold events in the state — and whether its headquarters might relocate.
“[After the tournament] we, the NCAA, we’ve got to sit down and say if this environment remains the way it is, what does that mean for us going forward? We hold lots and lots of events,” he said then. “We’re going to have our national convention here, our offices are here. We have to say, ‘What are we going to do if this law goes into effect in July? What’s our relationship with the state of Indiana going to be?’”
A bill intended to clarify the law and to provide protection for LGBT customers, employees and tenants was enacted and signed by the Indiana governor not long afterward.
Last month, the Falcons were embarrassed by and quickly apologized for a coach who asked a prospect at the NFL scouting combine if he “liked men.”
“I am really disappointed in the question that was asked by one of our coaches. I have spoken to the coach that interviewed Eli Apple and explained to him how inappropriate and unprofessional this was,” Coach Dan Quinn said. “I have reiterated this to the entire coaching staff and I want to apologize to Eli for this even coming up. This is not what the Atlanta Falcons are about and it is not how we are going to conduct ourselves.”