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Georgia governor vetoes bill to protect churches from performing same-sex weddings

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal at a press conference to announce his vetoing of the bill (PA)

The Governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal, has vetoed a religious freedom bill which would have protected pastors from being forced to perform same-sex weddings.

Gov Deal said he would veto House Bill 757 because, “Our people work side by side without regard to the colour of our skin, or the religion we adhere to.” He said that Georgia was a state of “warm, friendly and loving people”.

The bill enumerated actions that “people of faith” would not have to perform for others: Clergy could refuse to marry same-sex couples; church-affiliated religious groups could invoke faith as a reason to refuse to serve or hire someone. People claiming their religious freedoms have been burdened by state or local laws could force governments to prove a “compelling” state interest overriding their beliefs.

Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory and Savannah Bishop Gregory Hartmayer said that they supported the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which House Bill 757 in some ways, mirrored, but “do not support any implementation of RFRA in a way that will discriminate against any individual.

“Indeed, the dignity of each individual is the basis for religious liberty,”

The bishops said: “We fervently support religious liberty guaranteed by the United States and Georgia constitutions and we respect those who seek to enhance those freedoms through legislation. Governor Nathan Deal has announced his intention to veto HB 757 and the debate will, thus, continue.”

More than 500 companies joined a coalition led by Coca-Cola and other big-name Georgia firms urging Deal’s veto. 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.

Supporters said Deal caved to corporate pressure. “There was an economic threat that was put on Georgia by Disney, the NFL and any other person in Hollywood,” said Garland Hunt, a pastor at The Father’s House in Norcross, Georgia. “Because of economics, he faltered.”

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz said: “I thought that was very disappointing to see Governor Deal in Georgia side with leftist activists and side against religious liberty.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama did not think last year’s Supreme Court decision legalising gay marriage would lay to rest the struggle for equality.

“That struggle goes on,” Earnest told reporters accompanying President Obama on Tuesday to an unrelated appearance in Atlanta.

“The president comes down on the side of fairness and equality and opposing discrimination in all its forms every time,” Earnest said. “It’s the president’s strong view that we can take all the necessary steps to protect religious freedom without giving people the approval to discriminate against people because of who they love.”

It remains to be seen whether Republican leaders can gather three-fifths majorities in both houses to request a special session. Even then, with 11 Republicans and all Democrats voting against the bill, they may lack the two-thirds votes needed to override Deal’s veto. Action may have to wait until the legislature returns in January.

Republican Senator Marty Harbin said supporters will “work until there’s a change in governor if that’s what we have to do.”

Republican Lt Gov Casey Cagle, a top candidate for the Republican governor’s race in 2018, said the vetoed bill struck “the right balance.”

“I’ve always advocated for Georgia’s status as the number one state to do business, but as we move forward I will never lose sight of the importance of an individual’s right to practice their faith,” Cagle said.

Deal, a Baptist, will be able to exercise his veto power during two more legislative sessions before he leaves the governor’s mansion. Now 74, he has said he doesn’t plan to run again.

Georgia Equality, the state’s largest gay-rights advocacy group, now plans to push for legal protection specific to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents in employment, housing and other services. State law currently offers none.

“I really would hope after three years of debate, which has become very toxic, that we can get leaders from the faith community, from both parties and from a variety of political perspectives to come together on a new approach,” said the group’s executive director, Jeff Graham.