ATLANTA (AP) — Two Republican governors. Two proposals at the heart of LGBT rights. One rejection. One new law.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said he has prevented discrimination and protected the economy by vetoing a measure that would have allowed certain individuals, businesses and faith organizations to deny services to others based on "sincerely held religious beliefs."
In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory said he has protected his citizens' privacy and used "common sense" by signing into law a bill that, among other things, prohibits local anti-discrimination ordinances and obligates transgender people to use restrooms matching the gender on their birth certificates.
Their moves highlight a familiar GOP fault line between business conservatives, led by large corporations that have embraced LGBT rights, and social conservatives, who have sought more of their own legal protections since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage last year.
The conflict is particularly fierce in statehouses like those in Atlanta and Raleigh, where the GOP's overwhelming majorities give both sides of the fault line expectations of real power.
"There was no escape hatch," former Deal aide Brian Robinson said. "He was getting torn between two factions ... both of which have supported him strongly for years."
Raw political calculations also apply: Deal is 74, unable to seek a third consecutive term and almost certainly won't face Georgia voters again; McCrory is 59, and suddenly has a wedge issue smoldering in his lap in the midst of a tough re-election campaign.
Deal's situation left him free to wax eloquent about constitutional freedoms in his veto message, largely avoiding explicit commentary on same-sex marriage and LGBT rights.
"If indeed our religious liberty is conferred by God and not by man-made government, we should heed the 'hands-off' admonition of the First Amendment to our Constitution," he said.
The veto disappointed some religious conservatives and enraged others; all promised to keep trying. But Deal stood his ground, alluding to his own lifelong Southern Baptist affiliation. "I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone," he said, "to protect the faith-based community."
McCrory is in a more difficult spot, trying to frame the new North Carolina law in his favor while his Democratic general election opponent, state Attorney General Roy Cooper, does the same. Both rivals must placate their party bases — gay-rights supporting liberals for Cooper, social conservatives for McCrory — while appealing to the independents who hold sway in the closely divided state.
The law was the product of a special session Republicans called to override a city of Charlotte ordinance allowing transgender individuals to use bathrooms matching their gender identity. McCrory and his aides focus on provisions requiring people to use multi-stall bathrooms of the sex matching their birth certificates at state agencies, schools and universities.
Chris LaCivita, McCrory's chief campaign strategist, said it's a simple question: "Can a male use a female bathroom and a female locker room?" The governor "has always maintained that this is a case about reasonable expectations of privacy," he said.
Opponents used the same arguments in a 2015 referendum that overturned Houston's anti-discrimination ordinance.
Cooper announced Tuesday that his attorney general's office won't defend the North Carolina law, which he called a "national embarrassment."
He noted that the law does much more than tell people which bathrooms they can use: It also blocks workers from suing in state courts over workplace discrimination based on race, religion, color, national origin, age, sex or handicap. And it prevents any local government from protecting people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, setting their own minimum wages, or requiring businesses to provide paid sick leave.
All that "will set North Carolina's economy back if we don't repeal it," Cooper said, echoing the argument business leaders made in pressuring Deal for a veto in Georgia.
More than 500 companies joined that coalition, led by Coca-Cola and other big-name Georgia firms. The Walt Disney Co., Marvel Studios and Salesforce.com threatened to take business elsewhere. The NFL suggested Atlanta could lose its bids for the 2019 or 2020 Super Bowl.
McCrory heeded such arguments last year when he vetoed a "religious freedom" bill that was more limited than what Deal nixed. (The Legislature overrode McCrory's veto.) McCrory signed this bill into law the same day it was introduced, and said he'd "not had one corporation tell me that they're threatening to leave," though the NBA has now suggested it could move professional basketball's 2017 All-Star game from Charlotte.
Georgia Republican consultant Chip Lake said the economy ultimately drives this issue, regardless of the specific and often complicated provisions that McCrory, Cooper, Deal and others try to parse.
"We get caught up in arguments of what's right and what's wrong, but this becomes an issue where we just have to ask, 'Are the economic consequences real or perceived?'" Lake said. "You can call it economic extortion. We can talk about 'that's unfair,' but that's the reality."
Associated Press writers Kathleen Foody in Atlanta and Gary D. Robertson, Emery Dalesio and Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report.
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