Fifty-two years after Lester Maddox famously chased African-Americans out of his restaurant with an ax handle, the phrase “We don’t serve your kind here” may be heard once again in Georgia.
On Wednesday, the Republican-controlled Georgia General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a law that says the state may not “substantial burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a law, rule, regulation, ordinance or resolution of general applicability.” Essentially, the law says that businesses may discriminate against LGBT people on the basis of religious beliefs, and the state can’t do anything about it — even it violates local ordinances protecting LGBT people from discrimination.
Last spring, when conservatives legislators in Indiana and Arkansas pushed through “religious freedom” laws designed to legalize anti-LGBT discrimination, Georgia lawmakers were working on their own bill. It didn’t pass, due to strong opposition from businesses in the state.
But Georgia Republican lawmakers didn’t learn anything from their defeat, or the backlash against Indiana and Arkansas last year. Georgia’s zombie “religious freedom” bill was defeated last year, but it didn’t die. It was resurrected in the Senate in January, and passed only after it was forced through while Democrats were in the bathroom, along with another bill that would allow public officials to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and might even allow public employees to refuse to recognize a same-sex marriage on a death certificate.
The bill launched a “civil war” in the state GOP. Moderate Republicans (who somehow still exist in Georgia) wanted little to do with it, and tried to add provisions to make it less awful. Republican Rep. Mike Jacobs proposed an amendment clarifying that the bill must not be interpreted as legalizing discrimination, but conservatives declared that the amendment would defeat the purpose of the bill, and tabled it when the amendment narrowly passed.
Even Georgia’s Republican governor Nathan Deal spoke out against the bill. Deal said that Jesus’ outreach to the outcasts of his time ran counter to the standards of the “religious freedom” bill saying, “If you were to apply those standards to the teaching of Jesus, I don’t think they fit.” Deal invoked the New Testament Gospel of John to emphasize, “that we have a belief in forgiveness and that we do not have to discriminate unduly against anyone on the basis of our own religious beliefs.”
In response, Georgia’s conservative lawmakers made the bill worse, adding language that could undermine local ordinances protecting LGBT people from discrimination and “permit hospitals to refuse to provide medically necessary care, or allow a taxpayer-funded service provider to discriminate by denying a job because of the applicant’s religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity.” Sen. Emanuel Jones even got Republican Sen. Greg Kirg to admit that the GOP’s “religious freedom” law would also protect the Ku Klux Klan.
Businesses backlash was strong and swift. The Decatur-based telecom company 373K announced via Twitter that it would be leaving the state.
— 373K, Inc. (@373KInc) February 19, 2016
“I’m gay, our CFO is gay, we have people from every walk of life working here” co-founder Kevin Williams said. “I’ve got Muslims, Buddhists, atheists here. We’ve got great Christians working for us. They’ve never thought of not serving anyone – that’s not the message of Christ.” 373K Client Relations Manager Brian Greene said the company no longer feels comfortable paying taxes in the state.
Salesforce, one of the nation’s largest tech marketing firms has threatened to pull its 15,000-person convention out of Georgia — along with the revenue it brings into the state — and proceed with moving business out of the state if the governor signs the bill, which “creates an environment of discrimination and makes the state of Georgia seem unwelcoming to same-sex couples and the LGBTQ community.”
“If HB 757 is not vetoed and instead becomes law, Salesforce will have to reduce investments in Georgia, including moving the Salesforce Connections conference to a state that provides a more welcoming environment for the LGBTQ community,” the company said in a statement. The statement is consistent with Salesforce’s actions last year when the company cancelled “all programs that require our customers/employees to travel to Indiana to face discrimination.”
The NFL issued statement suggesting that the bill could ruin the state’s chances of hosting a Super Bowl. The Atlanta Falcon’s new stadium is set to open next year, and the city had hoped to host a Super Bowl in either 2019 or 2020.
Already, events in Georgia are shaping up to resemble last years’ backlash against Indiana. Indiana’s law cost the state $40 million in cancelled deals and cancelled contracts. Discrimination could cost Georgia a lot more, if the state’s Republican lawmakers have their way.