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Greg Bluestein

Nathan Deal: Changes are coming to Georgia’s ‘religious liberty’ proposal

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Gov. Nathan Deal addresses a crowd at the Capitol

Gov. Nathan Deal addresses a crowd at the Capitol. AJC/Greg Bluestein

Gov. Nathan Deal doesn’t typically comment on pending legislation. But every once in a while, he chimes in on a controversial proposal to send a message to lawmakers and their supporters. And that’s what he did Monday morning on the “religious liberty” proposal winding its way through the Legislature.

The signal was sent on legislation that passed the Georgia Senate on Friday to allow opponents of same-sex marriage to cite religious beliefs in denying services to gay couples. Already, a small telecom startup based in Decatur has announced plans to leave Georgia, and opponents warn others will follow.

Deal declined to talk specifics on the legislation, but made clear the measure is still evolving – and that he and his top aides are working with House Speaker David Ralston and other legislative leaders.

“We’re working with the leadership of the General Assembly now as that bill is continuing to move through the process,” he said. “So we’ll see.”

He added: “I don’t comment until things are finalized, and, by far, it’s not finalized yet.”

Ralston spokesman Kaleb McMichen said there are “ongoing” discussions on changes to the legislation, which still must pass the House before it lands on Deal’s desk.

“It’s certainly not over yet,” said McMichen.

Ralston later said that lawmakers have long heard concerns from film industry executives and others that the legislation could cost Georgia jobs.

“It’s a very emotional issue,” Ralston said. “It’s an issue that is going to have consequences.”

HB 757 would allow faith-based organizations and individuals to opt out of serving couples – gay or straight – if they cite a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction regarding marriage. One proposal making the rounds would more strictly tailor the definition of a faith-based organization to exclude private organizations and businesses.

Earlier today, our AJC colleague Kristina Torres reported that critics are raising a new red flag about the legislation:

And that includes a warning over the weekend from those in the entertainment industry that the state’s careful cultivation of the film industry may be about to implode because of it.

“This very assembly working on this bill has invested billions of taxpayer dollars growing an industry that would leave this state,” said Brian Tolleson, who owns an Atlanta-based digital entertainment company called Bark Bark and works with studios and media companies from New York City to Los Angeles.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber also circulated a letter to lawmakers warning that the measure, as it currently stands, could threaten “Georgia’s strong brand as the premier home for talented workers, growing businesses, entrepreneurial innovation, and a thriving travel and tourism industry.”

Supporters, who have cheered the measure as a compromise that recognizes their faith-based objections to gay marriage, have said those concerns are misplaced.

“It in no way interferes with our world-class tourism or business communities whatsoever,” Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle told Torres. “We are simply ensuring that no Georgian suffers at the hand of our government for their view on marriage.”

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