As Gov. Nathan Deal ponders the “religious liberty” bill that the General Assembly has adopted, he can look to recent examples of how two other Republican governors handled this particular issue.
The example cited often in media accounts is Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana.
Last year, the Indiana Legislature passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act that was similar to what Georgia’s lawmakers have adopted this year. Critics of the bill said it would lead to widespread discrimination against the LGBT community and damage Indiana’s business image, but Pence signed the bill anyway.
Reaction to the new law was immediate, widespread and intense. Several organizations withdrew events from the state, Angie’s List canceled a $40 million expansion of its headquarters, and business boycotts were threatened.
The state was pilloried in the national media, with the Indianapolis Star running a front-page editorial under the headline “Fix This Now,” demanding that the new law be amended.
Indiana lawmakers quickly passed a separate bill to provide protections for LGBT customers, employees and tenants, and Pence signed the legislation one week after he signed the original bill.
“Over the past week, this law has become a subject of great misunderstanding and controversy across our state and nation,” Pence said. “However we got here, we are where we are, and it is important that our state take action to address the concerns that have been raised and move forward.”
The blowback that resulted from Indiana passing a religious-freedom law could easily happen here if Deal signs the controversial bill.
“The fact is, we will endure a boycott of this state,” said Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. “Get ready for it; it will affect this state.”
Deal can also consider the example of Jan Brewer, the Republican governor of Arizona from 2009 to 2015.
Brewer is as staunch a conservative as you’ll find. While she served as governor of Arizona, she signed the state’s controversial immigration law, called “Papers, please,” which served as a model for the anti-immigration bill signed by Deal in 2011.
In 2014, the Arizona Legislature passed a religious-freedom bill called Senate Bill 1062 that was similar in its provisions to the bill Pence signed a year later in Indiana.
Senate Bill 1062 went to Brewer’s desk for her signature but, unlike Pence, Brewer vetoed it.
“As governor, I have protected religious freedoms when there is a specific and present concern that exists in our state,” she said. “Senate Bill 1062 does not address a specific and present concern related to religious liberty in Arizona. I have not heard of one example in Arizona where a business owner’s religious liberty has been violated.”
Brewer said she worried that the bill, if it became law, “could divide Arizona in ways we cannot even imagine and no one would ever want. Let’s turn the ugliness of the debate over Senate Bill 1062 into a renewed search for greater respect and understanding among all Arizonans and Americans.”
Brewer’s veto of the bill enabled Arizona to avoid the political quagmire that Pence stepped into a year later in Indiana. There were no economic boycotts, and businesses did not flee Arizona.
Here’s the situation for Georgia now that the religious-freedom bill is in a position to become law.
The NFL has already warned that enactment of the law could take Atlanta out of consideration as a future site for the Super Bowl. The city could also lose NCAA basketball tournaments and other events that might be held in the domed stadium being built for Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank.
Atlanta has already committed $400 million in tax funds to build and maintain that stadium. The state is spending another $40 million in public money on a parking deck. Will all that tax money go down the drain because some legislators don’t like gays?
Atlanta and Georgia will also find it difficult to attract new businesses.
“This legislation will irreparably damage our economy and diminish the city of Atlanta’s standing as the business and cultural center of the Southeast,” Mayor Kasim Reed said.
Deal can follow the example of Brewer — or he can do what Pence did — when he takes final action on the “religious liberty” bill. The choice is his.
Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.