Georgia Governor Nathan Deal announced in a capitol press conference Monday that he would exercise his veto power by blocking a religious liberty proposal that drew withering criticism from gay rights activists and major corporate interests.
The bill, which would have granted faith-based, taxpayer-funded organizations the right to deny services and employment on the basis of sincerely held religious belief, was passed late in the session by the General Assembly after House and Senate negotiators combined three competing proposals into one omnibus religious liberty bill.
Deal said he would have signed without reservation the first of the bills to pass the House, dubbed the Pastor Protection Act, which restated the First Amendment to the United States Constitution by declaring that no member of Georgia's clergy may be compelled to officiate a marriage ceremony to which they objected. It was the combination of the three bills, he said, gave him concern that it would "lead to state-sanctioned discrimination."
In prepared remarks, Deal praised lawmakers for their efforts to find a compromise on religious liberty and discrimination but said the episode illustrates the challenge of legislating where the First Amendment is concerned.
The General Assembly's "efforts to purge this bill of any possibility that it will allow or encourage discrimination illustrates how difficult it is to legislate on something that is best left to the broad protections of the First Amendment to the United State Constitution," the governor said Monday. "That may be why our Founding Fathers did not attempt to list in detail the circumstances that religious liberty embraced. Instead, they adopted what the late Supreme Court Justice Scalia referred to as 'negative protection.' That is, rather than telling the government what it can do regarding religion, they told the government what it could not do, namely, 'establish a religion or interfere with the free exercise thereof.'"
Deal had 40 days from Sine Die last week to review it and other bills passed by the legislature, but his Monday veto was an uncommonly swift action for legislation considered a top priority by religious conservatives in the capitol.
The move is a boon for local conventions and visitors bureaus, which said more than a dozen major conventions were considering taking their business elsewhere, and for Atlanta's two bids to a host a Super Bowl. Previously, the National Football League said that the legislation would jeopardize the city's chances of hosting the championship in either 2019 or 2020.
Backers of the bill on Monday began the work of marshalling support for a veto override session, but the process and math are not in their favor.
Short of the governor himself calling lawmakers back to the capitol before January, Georgia's constitution requires fully three-fifths of members of the House and Senate to certify in writing their opinion that an emergency session is required. The margin of the bill's passage in the House, though, is short of that constitutionally required threshold.
Bill review: just getting underway
Gov. Deal has until May 3—40 days from adjournment on March 24—to take action on all those bills that passed out of the General Assembly this year. Much of the as-yet-to-be-enacted legislation tracks with Deal's own priorities, but there are a handful of bills, including a measure legalizing firearms on state college campuses, on which the governor may reasonably go either way.