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Georgia governor vetoes religious freedom bill criticized as anti-gay

Religious freedom proposals are being weighed in nearly a dozen states after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post, Photo: David Goldman/The Washington Post)

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) on Monday vetoed a controversial religious liberties bill that had provoked outrage from Hollywood, sports leagues and corporations for what critics said was its discrimination against gay and transgender people.

“I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia, which I and my family have been a part of for generations,” Deal said at a news conference announcing his decision.

Deal’s decision comes two weeks after the state legislature passed a bill aimed at shoring up the rights of religious organizations to refuse services that clash with their faith, particularly with regard to same-sex marriage. Deal, who had already expressed discomfort with the measure, came under enormous pressure to veto the bill after the National Football League suggested it might pass over Atlanta for future Super Bowls, and leading Hollywood figures threatened to pull production from the state.

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The decision drew immediate praise from gay rights groups.

“Today, Governor Deal heard the voices of Georgians, civil rights organizations, as well as the many leaders in the entertainment industry and private sector who condemned this attack on the fundamental rights of LGBT people, and he has set an example for other elected officials to follow,” Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement.

Social conservatives, however, accused Deal of flinching in the face of liberal opposition. Among those who immediately expressed disappointment via Twitter was Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission at the Southern Baptist Convention.

Georgia is not the only state contending with a backlash over legislation considered anti-gay. North Carolina last week enacted a law reversing civil rights protections for gay and transgender people that had been passed in Charlotte and requires transgender people to use restrooms that correspond with their genders on their birth certificates. The law, which was introduced, passed and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory (R) on the same day, also provoked criticism from businesses and sports leagues, including the National Basketball Association, which threatened to move next year’s All-Star game out of the state.

Also Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union and gay rights groups announced that they planned to file suit on behalf of several organizations and individuals who say they will be harmed by the North Carolina law.

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If signed into law, the Georgia bill would have allowed pastors to opt out of performing same-sex weddings and would have given religious organizations the ability to refuse certain services, including charitable services, if doing so clashed with their religious beliefs. Faith-based organizations also would have been permitted to use their religious beliefs to govern hiring and firing decisions.

Similar measures have been introduced around the country in an effort to protect people of faith from being forced to condone or participate in same-sex marriage, which became legal nationally last year as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.

Gay rights groups, however, contended that the measure essentially legalized discrimination by giving organizations that receive taxpayer funding the ability to deny employment to gay and transgender people. They called on large corporations that do business in the state to express their opposition, and an onslaught of companies paid heed, including AT&T, Bank of America and Google. The state’s major sports franchises came out in opposition to the bill as well.

Perhaps most significant was a backlash from the movie industry, which gets significant tax credits to film productions in the state and contributed some $6 billion to the state’s economy during the last fiscal year.

In his remarks, Deal did not refer to gay rights but rather argued that the measure was essentially a solution in search of a problem. He argued that Georgia already has robust protections for people and organizations of faith. However, he said he was troubled by the final bill because it “could give rise to state-sanctioned discrimination.”

“Georgia,” he said, “is a welcoming state.”