Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. (David Goldman/AP)
Columnist

You can have your Coke with a smile today.

On Monday, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a conservative Republican, said he would veto a bill that would have legalized discrimination against gay people, responding to an outcry from corporate interests including Coca-Cola, Home Depot, UPS, Walt Disney, Delta, Time Warner, Comcast, Netflix, Apple and the National Football League. As state legislators pushed the “religious liberty” bill through, Deal told them: “I hope that we can all just take a deep breath, recognize that the world is changing around us.”

Headlines of the past week show seemingly contradictory developments: Even as Georgia’s governor took a bold stand against discrimination, North Carolina’s Republican governor last Wednesday signed into law similar legislation enshrining discrimination again lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents.

But there is really no contradiction: Georgia’s governor vetoed the bill because it received massive public exposure and there was a resulting outcry from corporations concerned that it would offend customers and workers. North Carolina’s governor signed the bill literally in the dark of night, just before the Easter holiday weekend, after legislators introduced and passed it in a single day at a hastily convened special session — essentially slipping it into law before it could get attention and business interests could state their objections.

In both cases, you can see the effects of a new corporate citizenship that is emerging. Corporate America is traditionally conservative, reluctant to react to social controversy and divisive issues. But as public sentiment shifts dramatically on gay rights and as pro-equality millennials become a large bloc of consumers, business is shedding its reticence. This has happened, to a lesser extent, on immigration, various environmental issues and, recently, in support of Apple’s stand for consumer privacy.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal announced he will veto a religious freedom bill passed by the state legislature that has drawn national criticism for discriminating against same-sex couples. (Reuters)

Democrats and progressives see potential for a larger shift nationally in corporate political behavior, as Republicans take ideological stands on education, the Export-Import Bank, the debt ceiling and infrastructure spending that put them at odds with their traditional corporate allies. “They’re just not offering companies what they crave most out of Washington, which is predictability,” said Matt Bennett of Third Way, a business-friendly Democratic group. Republicans “are just these wild cards now,” he said, and will become more so if Donald Trump — who talks of 45 percent tariffs — becomes their nominee.

Though it’s not clear whether that broader shift to the left will occur among corporations, there is no doubt that a dramatic change has occurred on gay rights. When the Georgia legislature took up legislation giving religious groups the right to deny services to gay people, corporations by the dozen voiced their objections. Disney and Netflix said they would stop filming in Georgia, and the NFL said the bill would jeopardize Atlanta’s hopes of hosting the Super Bowl.

Deal said he wouldn’t “respond well” to “threats of withdrawing jobs from our state,” but respond he did. On Monday, he said the religious community’s request for government protection is “ironic,” because if “indeed our religious liberty is conferred by God and not by man-made government, we should heed the ‘hands-off’ admonition of the First Amendment.”

In North Carolina, Pat McCrory and state Republicans tried to avoid the trouble Deal faced, and the similar trouble Indiana Gov. Mike Pence faced in 2014.

North Carolina’s bill, passed and signed within 12 hours of its introduction, invalidates municipal nondiscrimination ordinances, including a Charlotte city ordinance covering transgender people’s use of restrooms. Lawmakers also passed a statewide nondiscrimination policy that omits protection for sexual orientation.

American Airlines, Apple, Dow Chemical, PayPal and others rushed to criticize the new law. The National Basketball Association suggested it might move its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte.

On Tuesday, more than 80 top executives from blue-chip companies signed a letter to McCrory saying the legislation is “bad for our employees and bad for business” and will “make it far more challenging for businesses across the state to recruit” and will “diminish the state’s draw as a destination for tourism, new businesses and economic activity.” The letter, coordinated by Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group, was signed by, among others, executives from Levi Strauss, Apple, Marriott, Pfizer, Google, Yahoo, Biogen, Microsoft and Facebook.

McCrory, peppered during a press conference Monday about all the municipal ordinances the new law would overturn, complained that the reporters were “blindsiding” him.

If he didn’t want to be blindsided by his own law’s effects, he could have spent more than one day on it. But McCrory, unlike the term-limited Deal, is up for reelection and likely hopes the issue will rally his conservative supporters.

Now North Carolina will face the economic consequences of his poor choice. McCrory should have done what Georgia’s Deal proposed: take a deep breath, and recognize that the world is changing.

Twitter: @Milbank

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