Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has vetoed a controversial religious liberty bill that would have allowed clergy to refuse performing gay marriages and allowed opponents of same-sex marriage to deny services to gay and lesbian couples.
The Georgia bill was one of several put forward in various state legislatures reacting to the Supreme Court’s decision last summer that made same-sex marriage legal across the country. But under pressure from a population increasingly supportive of same-sex marriage, and threatened by potential boycotts from big-name companies should the bill become law, the governor rejected the bill.
The Republican-majority legislature passed the bill to offer broad protections for people acting on their religious beliefs, but the bill’s opponents said it would permit discrimination and trample on local laws protecting LGBT people.
Governor Deal, a Republican, said he would have signed the bill in its original form, but that other versions had caused him concern.
"I have examined the protections that this bill proposes to provide to the faith-based community and I can find no examples of any of those circumstances occurring in our state," said Deal on Monday.
"I do not think that we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia," he added
There was significant pressure on Deal to reject the bill, however, particularly from brand-name companies and industries, including Coca-Cola, the NFL, and Hollywood. For some, the bill represented a conflict between the state’s social and fiscal conservatism.
"This really comes down to the conflict between the revivalist preacher and the chamber of commerce," said Charles Bullock III, a political scientist at the University of Georgia in Athens, in an interview with the Monitor last month.
In particular, Georgia’s film industry (dubbed 'Y'allywood') has played a significant role in turning the state economy around since the 2008 recession, the Monitor reported. Since the state began offering an uncapped 30-percent tax break to the film industry six years ago – the largest such tax break in the country – the economic impact from moviemaking has risen from $250 million to nearly $6 billion in Georgia, according to state estimates.
But after the state legislature sent the bill to Deal's desk, a laundry list of Hollywood heavyweights – including Disney, Time Warner, Viacom, Sony Pictures, 21st Century Fox, and The Weinstein Company – urged the governor to veto the bill.
Georgians themselves have also been steadily softening their views on same-sex marriage in recent years, partly a result of demographic changes in the Peach State.
A plurality of Georgians still oppose same-sex marriage, according to a poll last month from the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute. While 53 percent of Americans were in favor and 37 percent opposed, the poll found, 45 percent of Georgians were in favor and 47 percent opposed.
But a 2013 poll from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that 48 percent of residents supported gay marriage, a figure they partly attributed to "burgeoning support from younger residents."
"These are the highest polling numbers we have seen in Georgia, but it's not surprising," Jeff Graham, the director of Georgia Equality, a gay rights group, told the Journal-Constitution. "For years on a national basis there’s been greater support to allow gay and lesbian couples to get married. And even though Georgia has been lagging, change is coming."
The decision to veto the bill, Deal said, was "about the character of our state and the character of our people. Georgia is a welcoming state; it is full of loving, kind, generous people."
Whether similar bills in other southern states will meet the same fate remains to be seen. A Mississippi House Committee approved such a bill last month, and the Kentucky Senate passed another such bill earlier this month.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.