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Ga. governor cites Jesus in signaling 'religious freedom' bill opposition

Georgia's religious freedom bill now heads to Gov. Nathan Deal's desk, but he hasn't said if he'll sign it.

Story highlights

  • Georgia's state Senate, House pass a revised version of H.B. 757, which supporters say protects religious freedom
  • Opponents -- including many business leaders -- say the measure will permit discrimination against gays and lesbians
  • Gov. Nathan Deal will review the bill next month; he's said his faith can't justify discrimination based on one's religion

(CNN)As in other states with Republican-led legislatures, a so-called "religious freedom bill" has passed in Georgia. Those who oppose it say the measure permits unjust discrimination against gays and lesbians. Those who support it call it necessary protection for conservative Christians who don't agree with same-sex marriage.

Yet Gov. Nathan Deal, himself a Republican, has signaled he's not eager to sign such legislation -- citing his own Christian faith.
    Talking to reporters earlier this month, Deal noted he's a Baptist, just like many of those pushing for passage of HB 757. And he said that, "We do not have a belief, in my way of looking at religion, that says that we have to discriminate against anybody."
    "I think what the New Testament teaches us," the governor added, "is that Jesus reached out to those who were considered outcasts."
    Gay and lesbians -- in the sense that their lifestyles don't conform with the views of some people in some religions -- would be the "outcasts" in this case. Deal said he does not feel threatened by a man who wants to marry a man, or a woman who wants to wed a woman. And he certainly doesn't believe Georgia's government needs to safeguard those who on, religious grounds, treat such people differently than others.
    "I don't think that we have to have anything that allows discrimination in our state in order to protect people of faith," he said.
    Deal's strong message, and particularly its Christian rationale, set him apart from many other politicians, particularly conservatives who've argued that such measures are necessary on the heels of last year's Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage
    But his rationale didn't stop legislators from pushing HB 757 forward.
    In fact, both the Senate and House handily passed a revised version of the legislation Wednesday.

    Bill handily clears House, Senate

    Georgia's House of Representatives approved the measure 104 to 65, while the ratio -- with 37 for and 18 against, which would be enough to override a veto by Deal -- was even more overwhelming in the Senate.
    "The Free Exercise Protection Act ... provides a much needed increase in religious liberty protections for all the citizens of Georgia," the Georgia Baptist Mission Board wrote on Facebook after the votes, urging people to contact Deal to encourage him to sign the measure into law.
    Similar calls went out on the other side of the debate. Georgia Equality, an LGBT advocacy group, claimed Thursday that HB 757 "is already bringing shame to our state."
    Its executive director, Jeff Graham, told CNN affiliate WSB the changes may make gays and lesbians even more susceptible to discrimination, especially since they aren't a protected group under Georgia state law.
    "(Description could be) now on any basis, not just on the basis of the views of marriage," Graham said. "(The bills' passage) sends a very strong signal that the LGBT community is far from gaining any form of legal recognition of acceptance by our own state government."
    As to the governor's position now, his spokeswoman Jen Talaber Ryan said only that Deal "has been clear as to his position on this issue and will assess the legislation in April."

    Similar bills in many other states

    Georgia isn't the first state to go down this road.
    Back in 2014, Arizona was in the spotlight because of SB1026, a bill that supporters claimed protected individuals' religious freedom and critics say served as cover for businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians.
    Then-Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed that bill under pressure. But it didn't stop other proposed bills with similar (in some cases, identical) language from circulating in other states, mostly those with legislatures with GOP majorities.
    According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, some form of religious freedom acts currently exist in 21 states.
    Another 15 states debated such bills last year -- Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming. These efforts have failed in Montana, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.
    Some of these controversial bills have become law, albeit in revised form. That's what happened in Arkansas, where Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a measure after it was overhauled to mirror federal law.
    And in Indiana, Gov. Mike Pence came under fire after signing just such a measure in March 2015. But a week later, he approved a significantly revised measure that included protections for the LGBT community for the first time in that state's history.

    Businesses oppose Georgia bill

    One big thing that spurred Indiana's revisions -- and other states not to enact such laws -- was pressure from leading organizations and businesses, including major companies such as Apple, Walmart and Salesforce, as well as sports associations like the NCAA, NBA and NFL.
    That's very much the case in Georgia as well.
    Boasting companies such as Home Depot, UPS and Coca-Cola, the Peach State is home to 20 companies in the Fortune 500 -- an annual ranking of the most profitable U.S. businesses. A total of 440 companies in the Fortune 500 have a presence in Georgia, according to the state's government.
    Georgia United Against Discrimination reports that over 400 companies have come out against the measure, citing tweets from business leaders like Unilever CEO Paul Polman, computer entrepreneur Michael Dell and Microsoft President Brad Smith.
    "Georgia must stop discrimination in the name of religious freedom," tweeted Virgin Atlantic CEO Richard Branson, one of many prominent businesspeople to weigh in publicly on the measure.
    Delta CEO Ed Bastian, whose airline calls Atlanta home, said this month that Georgia should send a "clear message that discrimination of any kind is unacceptable."
    "We fully support Governor Deal rejecting a bill, including Bill 757, that would do anything other than uphold equality and ensure Georgia remains a welcoming state for everyone," Bastian said.

    Companies could leave state if bill becomes law

    This was before the revisions passed Wednesday, though the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce still doesn't think HB 757 should become law.
    The business group tweeted an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story with its statement, namely, "This legislation is in conflict with the values of diversity and inclusion that Georgians hold dear and could erode Georgia's hard-earned status as the No. 1 state for business -- and would harm our ability to create and keep jobs that Georgia families depend upon."
    Brian Tolleson, an entertainment industry executive, has told WSB that he's gotten calls that at least one feature film and perhaps more projects won't come to Georgia if the bill passes.
    And 373K, a telecommunications company, has already signaled its intentions to leave. The company nonetheless has been active on Twitter with news about the legislation, warning that "the backlash is growing."
    It's also urged people to pressure Deal not to sign it, though it doesn't plan to remain in Georgia regardless.
    "They want us to stay," the company tweeted, noting conversations with state officials. "However, this will not be happening."