Gov. Deal’s ‘religious liberty’ veto downplayed business influence

By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on April 1, 2016

Even before the 2016 Georgia legislative session began, the business community at the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s annual meeting in December let it be known it would fight any religious liberty bill that could possibly cause discrimination.

And as various versions of a religious liberty bill were introduced, amended and ultimately passed both houses, the objections from business leaders, industries, organizations and major conventions grew even louder — with some saying they would boycott Georgia if the bill became law.

Gov. Nathan Deal

Gov. Nathan Deal announces his veto of religious freedom bill

But when Gov. Nathan Deal announced on the morning of March 28 that he will veto the legislation, business leaders were noticeably measured in their response. It was all part of a well-orchestrated attempt to give the governor some space and not inflame the opposition.

The move was part of a delicate balancing act to support a governor who has touted Georgia’s standing as the No. 1 state for business while not leaving the impression that the governor was a pawn of the business community.

Consider this: While the legislature was still in session, a meeting was scheduled with Gov. Deal and top leaders of the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce for 11 a.m. March 28 — primarily to talk about House Bill 757 — the religious freedom legislation.

But an hour before the meeting, the governor had held a press conference to announce he was vetoing the bill. Earlier that morning, key business leaders who were to attend the meeting with the governor were not aware he was going to be making that announcement.

Several people who were close to the process explained that if the governor had first met with the business leaders and then announced his veto, it might have looked as though he was following their direction rather than leading.

Business leaders also said they respected the way that Gov. Deal explained his veto — by talking about his personal faith and belief in a God that does not discriminate. The governor, in fact, emphasized he had not been swayed by either opponents of the bill or by companies threatening to leave Georgia.

Linginfelter, Gellerstedt Jenner wood

Hank Linginfelter of AGL and 2016 chair of the Georgia Chamber enters meeting with Gov. Nathan Deal along with Larry Gellerstedt of Cousins Properties and Jenner Wood of SunTrust, who are on executive committee of Metro Atlanta Chamber (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“Some of those in the religious community who support this bill have resorted to insults that question my moral convictions and my character,” Deal said at his press conference. “Some within the business community who oppose this bill have resorted to threats of withdrawing jobs from our state. I do not respond well to insults or threats. The people of Georgia deserve a leader who will make sound judgments based on solid reasons that are not inflamed by emotion. That is what I intend to do.”

Less than a half hour after making that statement, Deal met with about a dozen business leaders in Room 107 at the State Capitol for the meeting that had been scheduled the week before. Attendees included:

  • Dave Abney, CEO of United Parcel Service;
  • Paul Bowers, president and CEO of Georgia Power and 2015 chair of the Georgia Chamber;
  • Peter Carter, executive vice president and Chief Legal Officer for Delta Air Lines;
  • Chris Clark, president of the Georgia Chamber;
  • Richard Dugas, CEO of Pulte Homes;
  • Larry Gellerstedt, CEO of Cousins Properties Inc. and 2015 chair of the Metro Atlanta Chamber;
  • Katie Kirkpatrick, chief policy officer of the Metro Atlanta Chamber;
  • Doug Hertz, president of United Distributors and a part owner of the Atlanta Falcons;
  • Bill Linginfelter, an executive of Regions Bank and 2017 chair of the Georgia Chamber;
  • Hank Linginfelter, an executive with AGL Resources and 2016 chair of the Georgia Chamber;
  • Rich McKay, president of the Atlanta Falcons; and
  • Jenner Wood, a top executive at SunTrust Banks and 2016 chair of the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

After they met with the governor, the business leaders departed out of another door so they wouldn’t have to answer questions from reporters.

Chris Clark said he had been appointed spokesman for the group, and he carefully chose his words.

“At the end of the day, the governor is right that Georgia is and should continue being a welcoming place for everyone,” Clark said. “There was a general appreciation for the difficult decision that the governor had to make.”

When asked about the timing of the meeting, Clark said: “We just wanted to meet with the governor after the session was over, and this was the first available time.”

Clark wouldn’t say the business community was relieved or delighted by the governor’s veto. Instead, he used the word “pleased” to describe the sentiment, and Clark acknowledged: “We were opposed to the bill.”

But Clark also was well aware that proponents of the legislation likely will bring the bill up again — either next year or possibly in a special session.

georgia business

Georgia touts its designation as the No. 1 state for business in a huge banner at the State Capitol (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“We appreciate the leadership in the House and Senate trying to find a balanced approach to this,” Clark added.

While he would not use the word relieved, Clark had his own reasons to be glad the cloud of the religious freedom bill has dissipated.

Next week is the Georgia Chamber’s highest-profile economic development effort — the Red Carpet Tour. “The timing of this (veto) was appropriate so this won’t be an issue,” Clark said.

The 56th Red Carpet Tour will give business leaders, who are considering expanding, relocating or investing in Georgia, an opportunity to tour the state and attend the Master’s Tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club.

“It will have the largest number of CEOs that we’ve had in several years,” Clark said of the Red Carpet Tour which will take place the week of April 4.

While every effort was made to downplay the business community’s influence in Gov. Deal’s decision, several industries and major events could have been jeopardized had the bill become law.

Deal can take a great deal of the credit for nurturing the development of Georgia as a prime state for film and video production. Disney, Marvel and several other film producers had let it be known they might consider moving their business to other states if the bill had become law.

The state also played a major role in the Atlanta Falcons’ new Mercedes-Benz Stadium set to open next year. One selling point for the new $1.5 billion stadium was the probability that Atlanta will secure a future Super Bowl. In May, the owners of the National Football League at a meeting in Charlotte, N.C., will be voting on the Super Bowl cities for 2019, 2020 and 2021. Atlanta is planning to bid on all three, but it hopes to be able to secure the prize for 2019. Because of the NFL’s policies against discrimination, it could have hurt Georgia’s chances to win the Super Bowl bid had the religious liberty bill passed.

The hospitality sector is one of Georgia’s biggest industries. InterContinental Hotels Group’s (IHG) Americas headquarters is in Atlanta, and it has eight hotel brands in the state with more than 130 lodging facilities with 2,000 corporate employees in three metro Atlanta locations.

“InterContinental Hotels Group applauds Governor Nathan Deal’s decision to veto House Bill 757,” said Paul Snyder, IHG’s vice president of corporate responsibility. “We agree with the governor that the bill does not reflect the character of our state or the character of its people. Thanks to the governor’s leadership, Georgia will remain a great state to visit and do business.”

Another important message also was sent to Georgia. Last year, Atlanta was in the running for the headquarters of industrial giant General Electric. Although GE chose Boston over Atlanta, the company was impressed by what it saw in Georgia. People inside GE have told state leaders that Georgia would be considered for future significant investments by the company.

On March 28, GE tweeted a statement about the governor’s veto with a clear message of the company’s views of communities where it invests: “We applaud Governor Deal’s veto of Georgia House Bill 757. At GE we believe that a wide variety of cultural and individual experiences help us innovate and deliver the best results for our customers. Laws that prohibit discrimination and encourage inclusiveness and diversity are essential to our employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders, and the communities in which we live and operate.”

The governor and the business community obviously are standing on the same side of the religious liberty issue, but they are doing all they can to not bring too much attention to their shared interests. Instead, they are letting the governor’s own words carry the day — hoping his personal convictions will resonate with some of the people who voted in favor of the bill.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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