Religious liberty bill: Will it thwart Georgia's rise as a moviemaking hub?

Georgia is among states considering legislation in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision last year legalizing same-sex marriage. But the legislation could alienate the state’s thriving entertainment industry.

Courtesy of Gene Page/AMC/AP/File
The cast from the second season of "The Walking Dead" poses in Senoia, Ga. The TV series films in that town.

In one recent development in the zombie hit “The Walking Dead,” a ragtag confederacy of apocalypse survivors leaves Georgia for Virginia.

The actual actors, however, didn’t do much except walk to a different set in Senoia, Ga. – specifically, a partially built townhouse complex ringed by a bullet-peppered tin fence.

“The Walking Dead” AMC series is emblematic of Georgia’s emergence as a global entertainment capital, now only third behind Los Angeles and New York, largely thanks to attractive tax incentives. Some 240 features and shows were filmed here in 2015, employing, directly and indirectly, 72,000 people, with many earning north of $80,000 a year.

Yet the evangelical Deep South’s honeymoon with Hollywood may be souring. A group of rural Republican lawmakers at Georgia’s statehouse are reacting to last summer’s US Supreme Court decision that made same-sex marriage legal across America. Last week, the state Senate passed a strongly worded religious liberty bill that would allow opponents of same-sex marriage to deny services to gay and lesbian couples.

The upshot is that, just like the “Walking Dead” survivors leaving Georgia, Hollywood directors, producers, and guilds are facing pressure to decamp for friendlier hills should the religious liberty bill become law in the Peach State.

The controversy already engendered by the legislation highlights how long-simmering culture-war resentments can flare up to threaten high-stakes tax policy. It’s also testing how far socially conservative lawmakers in the South are willing to go to kill a golden goose so as not to uphold something offensive to them.

“This really comes down to the conflict between the revivalist preacher and the chamber of commerce,” says Charles Bullock III, a noted political scientist at the University of Georgia in Athens (UGA).

The entertainment industry is just one example of the businesses that might pull back from Georgia over the legislation. But given Hollywood’s traditional leftward bent, it puts the issues at stake in Georgia into sharp relief.

“I don’t know for a fact that [a religious liberty law in Georgia] could impact [film and TV] production, but I believe that the film community has historically not supported any kind of discrimination,” says Kathy Mooney, a casting director in Detroit. Hollywood, she says, would be under a lot of pressure to act if Georgia enacts the legislation.

Legislative gambits

The Georgia bill is similar to gambits in three other Southern states, all of which are symptoms of a broader struggle in the United States, especially in its redder corners, to absorb last year’s historic Supreme Court decision on gay marriage while “possibly leading to fresh tensions between state and federal discrimination laws,” as the Monitor’s Molly Jackson noted last Saturday.

So far, Georgia has remained on the right of the so-called Utah compromise, in which the Legislature in that state carved out explicit protections for both gay people and religious ones.

The proposal in Georgia offers exclusive protections to those with “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such marriage.”

GOP state Sen. Greg Kirk, the bill’s sponsor, said that he “listened to the concerns of the faith community, the business community, and the LGBT community, and I truly believe this legislation protects all individuals.” He added that the bill “only impacts the government’s interaction with faith-based organizations or a person who holds faith-based, sincerely held beliefs as it relates to marriage.”

Georgia’s House has also passed a version of what supporters call “live and let live” legislation. The two chambers are now hashing out changes, and some say the legislation could land on Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk by Monday.

Driving the religious liberty argument “are sincerely held beliefs that have come down from parents and grandparents, where they can point and say, ‘Here it is, right here in the Bible,’ ” Professor Bullock says.

Some, he adds, might see it as a spiritual test if they’re concerned that upholding their beliefs could cause economic harm. “They can also say, ‘If you hold these beliefs sincerely, then [Hollywood] money may be simply the devil’s temptation – just testing you to see if you will stay by your religion.’ ”

Poll results

The nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute last week released a survey that indicated 2 out of 3 Georgians support antidiscrimination laws for LGBT people, and that just over 1 in 3 Georgians support allowing a business owner to deny service to LGBT people by citing religious beliefs.

In a report on the bill, former US Justice Department official Joe Whitley notes that the First Amendment already gives pastors and religious groups the right to make decisions based on religious beliefs. But the Georgia bill, he says, would probably create new and largely unchecked rights to discriminate against LGBT people and others.

The question of whether religious liberty legislation will chase off a largely progressive-minded movie industry is not an idle concern, says Glenn Williamson, a lecturer at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, and an executive producer of the film, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

“I think Nathan Deal would be making a big mistake to sign this bill, because it would send a signal to a very creatively driven community that we might not be the place for you to do your business,” says Mr. Williamson, who is also a former DreamWorks executive.

Georgia’s so-called Y’allywood success has played at least some role in pulling Atlanta – and the state – out of the economic doldrums that hit hard here in 2008. In the past six years, the economic impact from moviemaking has risen from $250 million to nearly $6 billion in Georgia, according to state estimates. That’s when the state began offering an uncapped 30 percent tax break, the sweetest such tax relief in the nation.

And so the task looming now for Governor Deal, a Republican booster of the film industry, is whether he can thread a daunting needle in holding onto that industry. Indeed, Deal fits into a long line of Georgia leaders who have protected Atlanta, the corporate hub of the South, from its rural critics, given that “they don’t want to kill the goose that’s been laying the golden eggs,” as Bullock says.

Keith Poole, another UGA political science professor, ties the statehouse tension to even bigger stakes – especially to competition among states to attract emerging industries through a combination of incentives, culture, and workforce.

“People don’t realize that Georgia has a bunch of giant [Internet] server farms. We’ve got two nuclear reactors and we’re building two more, which means Georgia is going to have plenty of electricity,” he says. “Add to that the place is very, very friendly to business, and this [religious liberty bill] is really a stupid thing to do, especially because a lot of Georgia is actually a fairly sensible place.”

Potential motivations

Although Michael Jacobs, editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times, calls the arguments for a religious liberty law “sincere,” he also says understanding the impulse behind the legislation is difficult.

“Something is driving the hell-or-high-water determination among normally business-friendly Republicans to enact this legislation over the opposition of companies big and small,” Mr. Jacobs wrote in a column Tuesday. “It could be fear of change. It could be a desire to claim a win ... in a confusing cultural and legal climate. It could be the unfamiliar inability to shout down if not silence opponents.”

For now, Deal has said the religious liberty bill needs to be tweaked, but what he really wants – and which he’ll try to achieve – is to kill it, political scientists say.

“Governor Deal has ways of making this stuff get stuck in committees somewhere,” Professor Poole says. “He’s pretty good at that. I would bet that this [bill] will disappear.”

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