Governor says changes in works on religious exemptions bill

AP News
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Posted: Feb 22, 2016 5:49 PM

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia's governor indicated Monday that changes are coming to a bill allowing faith-based organizations to refuse service to gay couples without repercussion.

Supporters say it's intended to prevent religious adoption agencies, schools and other organizations from losing licenses, state grants, or other government benefits for their religious beliefs about same-sex marriage.

The state's business community continued to marshal opposition to the proposal, wary of the type of economic backlash Indiana experienced following 2015 passage of a broader "religious freedom" law. At an event touting the state's booming film and television industry, Gov. Nathan Deal said his office is working with legislative leaders and declined to say whether he supports the Senate-approved version.

"It is not finalized yet," the Republican said, prompting applause from representatives of the film and television industry gathered in the Capitol.

The measure as approved by the Senate allows individuals and faith-based organizations to decline service to couples based on religious beliefs about marriage. Senate leaders added that language, originally from a separate Senate bill, to a House bill allowing religious officials to decline performing gay marriages.

Opponents warn that the changes to the bill also could extend the legal protection to businesses with faith-based mission statements.

House Speaker David Ralston, the chamber's top Republican, confirmed Deal's office is working with General Assembly leaders and said lawmakers shouldn't ignore concerns from top Georgia companies or "the consequences other states have experienced."

"I think that should counsel us to move deliberately and carefully and thoroughly on this issue," he said. "It's a very emotional issue; it's an issue that's going to have consequences."

Supporters of the Senate changes, including Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, said it was intended to protect faith-based organizations that provide social services from going out of business because of their opposition to gay marriage. They also noted that the bill protects any view of legal marriage, including same-sex unions effectively legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision.

In a statement this weekend, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board J. Robert White asked House members to accept the Senate's version.

"All Georgia citizens, organizations and businesses need protection from adverse legislation that would infringe upon their religious beliefs regarding marriage, defined in the Bible as the union of one man and one woman," White said. "It is wrong to accuse persons of discrimination who live and conduct their businesses according to their deeply held religious beliefs."

The bill, approved Friday by the Senate and sent back to the House, has roiled the state's business community and prompted a pushback this weekend.

Business leaders warned in opinion pieces submitted to newspapers and other publications that the proposal could cause an economic backlash comparable to what Indiana experienced after passage of a broader "religious freedom" law in 2015 and jeopardize efforts to bring major events, including the Super Bowl, to Georgia.

More than 300 companies have signed onto Georgia Prospers, a coalition announced earlier this year to oppose any legislation that could damage the state's brand. Members include top employers AT&T, Coca Cola, Delta Air Lines, Home Depot and UPS.

"We are standing up for the principles of inclusion and fair treatment for every Georgia citizen and every visitor to Georgia," Joe Folz, vice president of Porsche Cars North America said Monday. "Legislation that promotes - or even appears to allow - discrimination against certain classes of people hurts Georgia's hard-earned reputation."

Brian Tolleson, founder of entertainment firm Bark Bark with around 20 employees at its Georgia branch, said that damage could include the film and television industry drawn to the state in recent years by an aggressive tax credit.

"We're building a world-class infrastructure and the most sophisticated facilities," Tolleson said. "It would be a real shame to see that demolished because of a bill intended to do one thing that actually did another."

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Follow Kathleen Foody at http://twitter.com/katiefoody. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/kathleen-foody.