WASHINGTON -- Georgia is considering passing a law that would let any taxpayer-funded organization deny services to same-sex couples, or unmarried couples in general, by citing religious freedom.
The bill, HB 757, was originally intended to protect ministers from having to perform marriages that violate their religious beliefs. (Members of the clergy already have that right under the First Amendment, but sometimes lawmakers just like to pass bills to make a statement.) That version of the bill passed the House last month.
But last week, the Senate expanded the bill to prohibit the government from taking action against anyone at a state-funded organization who has "a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such marriage."
In effect, the bill opens the door to discrimination against lesbian and gay couples, single parents and unmarried couples. It means state-contracted counselors, for example, could refuse to provide services to single mothers. Taxpayer funded adoption and foster care agencies could refuse to place children in homes with same-sex couples. State-funded homeless shelters could turn away unwed couples and their families. Government employees could refuse to file official forms for same-sex couples -- remember Kim Davis? -- or provide state tax benefits to single mothers.
The bill is currently sitting in the House, where lawmakers have the choice to either pass it with the new language and send it to the governor for his signature, or modify it and send it back to the Senate. Republicans control the fate of the bill, as the House, Senate and governor's office are all GOP-led.
The measure is already tarnishing Georgia's reputation. A massive coalition of businesses -- including Twitter, Chase, UPS and Delta -- signed a pledge stating they believe that treating all Georgians fairly "is essential to maintaining Georgia’s strong brand as the premier home for talented workers, growing businesses, entrepreneurial innovation, and a thriving travel and tourism industry." Leaders at Dell, Virgin and Microsoft have also spoken out.
Salesforce took things a step further on Wednesday. In a preview of how other businesses may respond, the California-based cloud-computing company sent a letter to Georgia lawmakers vowing to pull its investments out of Georgia if the bill becomes law. The company, which is valued at more than $44 billion, currently maintains an Atlanta office that is one of its top five employee hubs in the country.
"Without an open business environment that welcomes all residents and visitors, Salesforce will be unable to continue building on its tradition of innovation in Georgia," reads the letter from Warren Wick, senior vice president of Salesforce. "We encourage you to take decisive action to avoid this kind of damage and reaffirm that our state will not tolerate discrimination against people because of who they are or who they love."
An academic group with 1,200 members and a $650,000 investment to make is also vowing to take its business elsewhere.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights groups are focusing on Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R). On Wednesday, they delivered 75,000 email petitions to Deal's office, urging him to veto the bill.
"HB 757 makes Georgia workers, families and others vulnerable to the whims of anyone claiming a religious reason," Simone Bell of Lambda Legal, a group focused on LGBT legal protections, said on related conference call.
"This is wrong for Georgia. Freedom of religion is already protected under state law," said Bell. "HB 757 goes too far."
The Huffington Post reached out to Deal spokeswoman Jen Talaber to see if the governor plans to sign the bill if it hits his desk. We got an automated reply from Talaber saying that she's out of the office and to reach out to someone named Alyssa. Her email also offered "a few pro tips for you intrepid reporters" looking for comment on something:
1. The governor will not comment on pending legislation.
2. Alyssa will not comment on pending legislation.
3. I know you have to ask a follow-up, but still no comment on pending legislation.
Deal has been mostly quiet about the debacle, though on Monday he issued a warning of sorts that the bill needs to be changed.
“I do not want us to do anything that will be perceived as allowing discrimination in the state of Georgia. That is not who we are as a people," Deal said. "And I don’t think we have to do that in order to give the security that the faith-based community thinks we need. I want to make sure we don’t go out of balance.”
UPDATE: March 3 -- Deal said Thursday that he would reject any bill that "allows discrimination in our state in order to protect people of faith." Remarkably, the GOP governor said that while he personally believes marriage should be between one man and one woman, it's time for his party to "recognize that the world is changing around us."