Why Georgia governor defied his base over religious liberty

Critics say Gov. Nathan Deal sold out to big business by vetoing a religious liberty bill. But he is willing to take the heat. The split could reveal new fault lines on LGBT issues. 

David Goldman/AP
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal walks into a press conference to announce he has vetoed a religious liberty bill on Monday in Atlanta.

When Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a bill Monday that would have allowed Georgians with “sincere religious beliefs” to deny services to gay people, he suggested he was doing it in the “loving, kind and generous” spirit of the people of his state.

But Governor Deal, who does not have to face reelection, also did something else through his veto. He essentially stepped in as a political heat shield.

By standing up to his religious base, Deal has put himself in a situation where the conservative legislators who passed the bill “can cuss him,” says Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. 

Indeed, at a time of mounting populism in national politics, it is a decision that rankles. “What conservatives in Georgia are now seeing is that big businesses have the ear of Governor Deal in a way small businesses and churches do not,” writes conservative commentator Erick Erickson of Macon, Ga., on The Resurgent website.

But for Deal, that cost could be worth it. A year ago, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a state Religious Freedom Restoration Act and faced a nationwide backlash that forced the law to be revised.

“Deal’s veto is important,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “I think Pence’s experience in Indiana, which is one where he gave the [social] conservatives what they wanted and got crushed…, was very instructive for Governor Deal.”

Keeping his state out of a culture war that could have destroyed a blossoming film industry “probably has no downside for him,” Professor Bullock says.

The issue of religious freedom has been a recurring theme in state politics since last year’s Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. Conservatives have scrambled to make sure those with deep religious convictions aren’t compelled by the government to go against their faith.

But in rejecting Georgia lawmakers’ attempt to craft such a law, Deal argued that the effort was more about a message than actual legal protection – and that message, to the rest of the world, was that Georgians were trying to enshrine discrimination into law. Deal agreed with experts who say churches and pastors are already protected by the Constitution from having to serve gay people.

“I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia of which my family and I are a part of for all of our lives,” Deal said.

He acted to protect a pro-business culture that both Democrats and Republicans have spent 50 years cultivating. Threats of corporate boycotts – including from Hollywood, which has turned Georgia into “Y’allywood” by filming more than 250 shows and movies here last year – threw the issue into sharp relief for Deal.

But for many religious conservatives, Deal’s move is an example of a politician bought by the “corporate mafia” and represents a rejection of faith. Proponents of the bill say it had been narrowed so that it didn’t cover business activity and was a shield mainly for religious organizations and nonprofits who do not want to extend services to gay people.

In short, they saw it as a compromise, and Deal’s decision – as well as the language he invoked in defending it – has cut out opportunities for future compromise, they say.

“Conservatives in Georgia … are also seeing that no compromise can be had on the religious liberty issue,” added Mr. Erickson. “To have Governor Deal use rhetoric by opponents of religious liberty legislation – rhetoric that actually ignores key components of the legislation – was disappointing.”

Georgia lawmakers could attempt to override Deal’s veto or refuse to cooperate on Deal’s larger agenda – a package of major education reforms.

But Professor Jillson suggests that subtle shifts could be underway in conservatives’ battles against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights. National polls show broad support of same-sex marriage – and overwhelming support among the Millennial generation.

“Most people can see the American future, and you might even say Nathan Deal sees the American future,” Jillson says.

Yet last week, another Southern governor, Pat McCrory, signed a law banning communities from letting transgender women use ladies bathrooms. The two different gubernatorial responses to two different LGBT issues could be significant, Jillson suggests.

“At this point, a lot of conservative Americans are maybe willing to admit that gay marriage is here to stay, but they look at the transgender issues and say, ‘I don’t know, I don’t get it, I’m uncomfortable with it. Maybe it’s coming, but I don’t have to like it.’ ”

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