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Greg Bluestein

Nathan Deal makes a forceful, biblical case against Georgia’s ‘religious liberty’ bill

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Gov. Nathan Deal. Curtis Compton, compton@ajc.com

Gov. Nathan Deal. Curtis Compton, compton@ajc.com

Amid a growing outcry from powerful corporations over Georgia’s “religious liberty” proposal, Gov. Nathan Deal issued his strongest warning yet to lawmakers who are debating controversial legislation seen as a conservative answer to the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling.

In stark terms, the Republican said he would reject any measure that “allows discrimination in our state in order to protect people of faith,” and urged religious conservatives not to feel threatened by the ruling. He also called on his fellow Republicans pushing for the measure to take a deep breath and ” recognize that the world is changing around us.”

Deal has already called on lawmakers to make changes to the proposal, which has passed the Georgia Senate. It would allow opponents of same-sex marriage to cite religious beliefs in denying services to gay couples. On Thursday, he made clear that he wouldn’t be disappointed if even a variation of that measure fails to pass the Legislature when the session ends in late March.

“It’s not on my agenda item. It’s not one of those issues that I have been pushing,” said Deal.

He added:

“I know that there are a lot of Georgians who feel like this is a necessary step for us to take. I would hope that in the process of these last few days, we can keep in mind the concerns of the faith-based community, which I believe can be protected without setting up the situation where we could be accused of allowing or encouraging discrimination.”

Then came a more remarkable moment for the governor, who has largely sought to skirt the debate this year.

Standing in the lobby of a government building after a ribbon-cutting ceremony, he laid out a lengthy condemnation of the measure from a biblical perspective, first noting that he is a Southern Baptist who took religion courses at Mercer University.

“What the New Testament teaches us is that Jesus reached out to those who were considered the outcasts, the ones that did not conform to the religious societies’ view of the world … We do not have a belief in my way of looking at religion that says we have to discriminate against anybody. If you were to apply those standards to the teaching of Jesus, I don’t think they fit.”

He then turned to a passage from the Gospel of John that showed Jesus reaching out to an outcast.

“What that says is we have a belief in forgiveness and that we do not have to discriminate unduly against anyone on the basis of our own religious beliefs. We are not jeopardized, in my opinion, by those who believe differently from us. We are not, in my opinion, put in jeopardy by virtue of those who might hold different beliefs or who may not even agree with what our Supreme Court said the law of the land is on the issue of same-sex marriage. I do not feel threatened by the fact that people who might choose same-sex marriages pursue that route.”

The governor said he and his wife Sandra, who will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this summer, believe in “traditional marriage” between a man and a woman.

“But that does not mean that those who hold to that view should feel like they are threatened by those who have a different point of view,” he said.

“I hope that we can all just take a deep breath, recognize that the world is changing around us, and recognize that it is important that we protect fundamental religious beliefs,” he said. “But we don’t have to discriminate against other people in order to do that. And that’s the compromise that I’m looking for.”

Updated: House Speaker David Ralston’s spokesman just sent the following:

“Speaker Ralston appreciates and shares Governor Deal’s sincere commitment to protecting religious liberties while ensuring that Georgia continues to welcome everyone with genuine southern hospitality. Productive conversations continue with the Governor’s staff as well as other members of House leadership regarding HB 757 and the Speaker is confident that we can find a way to move forward together.”

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