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Why Georgia’s Governor Made The Conservative Choice In Vetoing Religious Liberty Bill


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Georgia's Republican governor, who supported the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a member of Congress, announced in a Monday press conference that he would exercise his veto power to block contentious religious liberty legislation that he warned “could give rise to state-sponsored discrimination.”

The announcement by Governor Nathan Deal came days after the state legislature adjourned for the session and amid a withering response by virtually every major corporate interest in the state.

Major conventions had already withdrawn from the state—the local conventions bureau said 15 planned gatherings warned they would take their business elsewhere—and the National Football League gave notice to Atlanta that the city's two bids to host a Super Bowl would fail.

It took a half-century of social investments—literal blood, sweat, and tears—by civil rights campaigners, entrepreneurs, and innovators to make Atlanta known the world-over as the “city too busy to hate.” But it took only a handful of part-time lawmakers just a few hours on a Wednesday afternoon to reverse it, earning us the ignominy of global scorn.

The danger that economic rot would metastasize as a consequence of the measure no doubt impacted Monday's veto. But Nathan Deal is foremost a man of faith and secondarily a subscriber of constitutionally bound, limited government—that's why he halted this legislation: faith is not in danger in Georgia but small government was.

“If indeed our religious liberty is conferred by God and not by the man-made government,” the governor said at a capitol press conference, “we should heed the 'hands-off' admonition of the First Amendment to our Constitution. When legislative bodies attempt to do otherwise, the inclusions and omissions in their statutes can lead to discrimination, even though it may be unintentional. That is too great a risk to take.”

Governor Deal vetoed the legislation because it would have grown government to a size so terrifyingly large that it could have enabled discrimination. This bill was not was as its authors styled it, nor did it honor the First Amendment or our party's principles. Instead, it would have granted taxpayer-funded organizations the right to deny critical services or even employment on the basis of a sincerely held religious belief.

One of the primary backers in the legislature once said the only opponents of the bill were those supporting “militant atheism.”

Now, in the spirit of Resurrection Sunday, allow me to roll back the rock on that particular brand of nonsense: I firmly opposed this legislation and yet I'm no militant atheist. Quite the opposite. Just as surely as I fight big government.

I've spent my life in the political trenches, and for a candidate, no less, whose sometimes-controversial view of faith in public life was the animating force of his candidacy for president. Not quite what I, or indeed anyone rational, would consider a militant atheist.

Marisa Pruitt DeRossett (née Flores) served as Hispanic outreach liaison in Georgia for presidential candidate Sen. Rick Santorum.
Marisa Pruitt DeRossett (née Flores) served as Hispanic outreach liaison in Georgia for presidential candidate Sen. Rick Santorum.

Vetoing this broad license to discriminate bill wasn't simply the right thing to do, but also the conservative one.

Supporters of this bill have conceded the legislation is plainly a response to the United States Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, but the First Amendment already provides ample legal safe harbor to opponents of the convention.

Our freedoms of religious, speech, press, and assembly are not going to be improved upon in a single afternoon session by some guys huddled in Atlanta. Instead, they can only muck it up—which is precisely what happened. The episode, the governor said in his veto press conference, illustrated just how hard it is to legislate where the First Amendment is concerned.

“That may be why our Founding Fathers did not attempt to list in detail the circumstances that religious liberty embraced,” Deal said. “Instead, they adopted what the late Supreme Court Justice Scalia referred to as 'negative protection.' That is, rather than telling government what it can do regarding religion, they told government what it could not do, namely, 'establish a religion or interfere with the free exercise thereof.' They had previously proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that Man’s Creator had endowed all men 'with certain unalienable rights,' including 'Liberty' which embraces religious liberty. They made it clear that those liberties were given by God and not by man’s government.”

Nathan Deal will be disparaged for his actions today by the same voices that argued only militant atheists opposed the bill. But Nathan Deal is no militant atheist – he's just conservative.