Gov. Nathan Deal and legislative Republicans are seeking a compromise on a controversial religious freedom bill that would satisfy both conservative voters in an election year and corporate leaders worried about losing business.
If they fail to find middle ground and legislation widely criticized as discriminatory becomes law, business groups are warning the fallout from a convention and tourism boycott of Georgia and losses from companies moving out of the state or choosing to locate elsewhere could reach $2 billion.
Those projected losses include $450 million in direct spending per year during the next four years and a $50 million annual reduction in state and local tax revenues during the same period, according to figures compiled by the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.“The ACVB numbers are real. In fact, they’re on the conservative side,” said Karen Bremer, executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association. “For every head we don’t have in a bed, we don’t have a butt in a seat. Whatever isn’t spent in a hotel room won’t be spent on a meal in a restaurant.”
What’s under fire is the rest of the Senate bill, which prohibits government from taking any “adverse action” against any individual or faith-based organization that speaks out or acts based on its religious beliefs about same-sex marriage.
“This bill is about equal protection, not discrimination,” Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus, the bill’s chief sponsor, said during a nearly three-hour Senate floor debate on the measure. “It’s narrow in scope. ... It only impacts the government’s interaction with [individuals and] faith-based organizations.”
But Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, said the language of the bill was so “inartfully drafted” it could open the door to faith-based groups refusing to provide taxpayer-funded services to Georgians in such settings as hospitals and homeless shelters if recipients’ lifestyles conflict with the organization’s religious beliefs.
“I support the right to hold religious beliefs,” she said. “[But] we should not enshrine into the law the ability to take action based on that [religious] belief.”
Regardless of the legal debate over language, opponents say the bill’s real danger lies in how it is perceived by convention organizers and sponsors of sporting events like the College Football Playoff Championship Game, to be played in the new Falcons stadium in 2018, and the Super Bowl.
“Any legislation that purports to say we’re OK with any discrimination is harmful,” said Ronnie Chance, executive director of Georgia Prospers, a coalition of businesses formed in January to oppose the religious freedom bill.
Chance, a former Republican leader in the Georgia Senate, said about 350 Georgia-based companies have signed the coalition’s pledge to work for the bill’s defeat, from small startups to more than 20 Fortune 500 companies.
Bill Henderson, chairman of the Georgia Hotel and Lodging Association, said the hospitality industry is particularly vulnerable to the potential aftermath of the General Assembly passing the Senate bill because conventions and sporting events can easily go elsewhere.
“There are choices businesses can make,” said Henderson, general manager of the Westin Atlanta Airport. “They’re not going to go to a place they believe supports discrimination of any kind.”
Businesses that have set up shop in Georgia would have a harder time relocating because of the effect on employees. But there have been rumblings on social media during the last week from representatives of the fast-growing film and entertainment industry critical of the Senate bill.
Deal told film and entertainment executives Feb. 22 during a celebration of the industry at the Capitol that he is working with House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, on changes to the Senate bill. Ralston spokesman Kaleb McMichen said the business community’s concerns with the current version of the bill are part of the ongoing discussions. “[Business leaders] don’t take issue with religious freedom or religious liberty,” McMichen said. “It’s about how to secure those First Amendment rights.”
McMichen signaled the issue isn’t likely to be resolved until the final days of the 2016 legislative session in late March. “It’s going to be more important to get it right than get it quickly,” he said.
Dave Williams covers Government