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Greg Bluestein

Nathan Deal on religious liberty: ‘I see what’s happening in North Carolina, Mississippi’

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Gov. Nathan Deal announces that he was vetoing religious liberty legislation at a Monday press conference in his ceremonial office. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

Gov. Nathan Deal announces that he was vetoing religious liberty legislation at a Monday press conference in his ceremonial office. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

Gov. Nathan Deal said the uproar in North Carolina and Mississippi over new laws that critics say curb gay rights should give supporters of the “religious liberty” measure in Georgia second thoughts, and warned that he’s willing to pull out the veto pen again next year if similar legislation lands on his desk.

In his first interview since his veto two weeks ago of House Bill 757, Deal said Tuesday he’s concerned religious conservatives who plan to revive the measure next year will put Georgia through another contentious debate.

“I don’t want to go through the same process all over again. I’ve made my position very clear. I tried to write a very thoughtful veto message,” he said. “It expressed my concerns and it expressed my reasons for vetoing it. And those reasons won’t change in my mind.”

Deal nixed the measure on March 28 amid a wave of criticism from business behemoths and gay rights groups who threatened to boycott the state if it became law. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and other supporters said the legislation would safeguard faith-based activities and vowed to bring it back next year. Critics, who argue that measure amounts to legalized discrimination, are hunkering down for a new fight.

More: Casey Cagle: The ‘silent majority’ backs religious liberty bill

Deal said he’s not going to weigh in on what next year’s legislation should look like, but he urged supporters to carefully consider the fallout in other Southern states whose governors recently signed legislation seen by critics as an attack on gay and transgender rights.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in his state Capitol office at the outset of the 2015 session of the Legislataure. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

“It’s time to take another deep breath. I see what’s happening in North Carolina. I see what’s happening in Mississippi,” he said. “And I would hope that many of the ones that are pushing for it would not want the state of Georgia to go through that kind of scenario.”

More: The ‘religious liberty’ debate in Georgia deepens

Deal has been showered with praise from business groups, gay rights advocates and others since the veto on March 28. But it infuriated religious conservatives and strained his ties with rank-and-file Republican lawmakers who overwhelmingly supported the legislation. In the interview, he said the criticism has taken a toll.

“Well, I think all of us want to be liked by everybody,” he said. “But when you come to issues like that, you can’t be liked by everybody because people have such divided opinions about something. My job as governor is to do what I think is best in the overall interest of the state of Georgia and its citizens as a whole. And that’s what I did.”

More: ‘Religious liberty’ veto could shape Deal’s final years in office

The two-term Republican is pondering another divisive debate as he considers whether to sign “campus carry” legislation that would allow permit holders to carry guns on the campuses of Georgia’s public colleges and universities. Second Amendment advocates have rallied behind the measure, while college presidents and faculty members have warned of dangerous consequences.

A crowd listens to panelists speak about Georgia's "religious liberty" bill last month. AJC file

A crowd listens to panelists speak about Georgia’s “religious liberty” bill. AJC file

Another veto could deepen the tension between the governor and GOP legislators, and Deal is torn over what to do after lawmakers defied his personal requests for changes that would exempt on-campus childcare centers and make other exceptions to the law.

“Admittedly, it’s another tough decision. Would I have preferred they not put that on my plate (without the changes)? Yes, I would have preferred that,” he said. “But they did. And I have to come, once again, to doing what I think is in the best interest of all the citizens of the state.”

More: Will Gov. Deal sign the ‘campus carry’ legislation?

The interview Tuesday came after Deal’s speech at the 30th anniversary gala for the 100 Black Men of Atlanta, a group of African-American leaders that raises funds for civic projects such as mentoring underprivileged students.

“You are living monuments,” Deal told the crowd. “You are, every day, face to face, carrying out the ideals of helping others with the goal of improving the lives of African-Americans and especially the young children in the communities.”

Here’s the transcript of the interview:

Q: It seemed like the religious liberty veto was one of the hardest decisions you’ve had to make. What was your thought process?

Deal: “I knew it was a divisive issue. Everybody knew that from the beginning. The reality was that nothing that that bill sought to prevent was not already prevented by the current law of our state or of our federal government. But it had attracted a lot of connotations, rightly or wrongly, that were associated with it. And there were words and language that was in the bill that could lead to the conclusion that it was intended for purposes other than what those who were supporting it said it was intended for.

“It’s always a difficult situation to make those judgment calls. I just wish people would look at it, as I said in the beginning, and take a very deep breath. It’s time to take another deep breath. I see what’s happening in North Carolina. I see what’s happening in Mississippi. And I would hope that many of the ones that are pushing for it would not want the state of Georgia to go through that kind of scenario.

Q: Are you glad that Georgia isn’t going through the same backlash as North Carolina?

Deal: “That’s a difficult situation for them, obviously.”

Q: It looks like the measure is going to come back in some form or fashion. What do you hope to see out of the bill?

Opponents of the "religious liberty" legislation march to the Capitol in 2015. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

Opponents of the “religious liberty” legislation march to the Capitol in 2015. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

Deal: “I’m not going to try to prejudge whether it will come back or what it’s going to look like, because I don’t think we know.”

Q: Does it concern you that the bill will come back?

Deal: “I don’t want to go through the same process all over again. I’ve made my position very clear. I tried to write a very thoughtful veto message. It expressed my concerns and it expressed my reasons for vetoing it. And those reasons won’t change in my mind.”

Q: You’ve received a lot of praise and a lot of vitriol for your stance. Does the criticism take a toll?

Deal: “Certainly.”

Q: How so?

Deal: “Well, I think all of us want to be liked by everybody. But when you come to issues like that, you can’t be liked by everybody because people have such divided opinions about something. My job as governor is to do what I think is best in the overall interest of the state of Georgia and its citizens as a whole. And that’s what I did.”

Q: You’ve got another tough decision with the campus carry bill that, either way, will lead to more vitriol. Where are you leaning?

Deal: “I can’t tell you yet – we’re in bill review.”

Q: But what about in terms of this being another divisive issue, after lawmakers refused to make changes you sought?

Deal: “Admittedly, it’s another tough decision. Would I have preferred they not put that on my plate (without the changes). Yes, I would have preferred that. But they did. And I have to come, once again, to doing what I think is in the best interest of all the citizens of the state.”