After a week-long firestorm of criticism for Indiana's and Arkansas' new religious freedom laws, similar legislation pending across the country may now be doomed.
In at least five states — Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, and Texas — religious freedom proposals that opponents warn would sanction discrimination against LGBT people have either died outright, or look to have little chance of becoming law this legislative session. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be gone for good.
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Georgia’s session came to a close at midnight Friday morning without a vote on a controversial religious freedom bill under consideration. One of the state’s top businesses, Coca-Cola, spoke out against the measure this week, saying it would “not only violate our Company’s core values, but would also negatively affect our consumers, customers, suppliers, bottling partners and associates.” The bill’s Republican sponsor told Insider Advantage he would try to pass similar legislation next year.
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“I think we all understand that this is a difficult decision,” Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, told reporters Thursday. “I hope that if and when it comes to my desk in the future that it will not have the same kind of divisiveness associated with it that has been experienced in those two states [Indiana and Arkansas.]”
On Thursday, hours before Georgia's legislative session wrapped up, embattled Republican Govs. Mike Pence of Indiana and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas signed legislation in an attempt to redress the harmful effects of their states' Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs). Both states had been under fire for days from businesses, celebrities, and politicians — all of whom feared the RFRAs would be used as a license to discriminate against LGBT people and other minority groups on religious grounds.
It didn't take long, however, for attention to shift to the dozens of other states that had introduced similar measures this session.
Georgia wasn't the only state that saw its religious freedom hopes dwindle this past week. In Nevada, Republican Assemblyman Erven Nelson walked away from a religious freedom measure that he sponsored because of fear the legislation would draw boycotts. And in Michigan, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder issued an unusual pronouncement that he would veto a RFRA measure that had not even had a chance to go through a committee hearing in the state Senate yet. According the Detroit Free Press, Snyder has never taken such a definitive position a bill this early on in the legislative process.
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“Given all the events that are happening in Indiana, I thought it would be good to clarify my position,” Snyder said Thursday. “I would veto RFRA legislation in Michigan if it is a standalone piece of legislation.”
This kind of ripple effect has happened before. In Arizona last year, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer buckled under enormous corporate pressure to veto a similar religious freedom measure that had cleared her state’s GOP-controlled legislature. By killing that bill, Brewer effectively put the kibosh on dozens of other religious freedom measures pending across the country.
This year, though, the religious freedom movement came back with a vengeance following the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling, which significantly expanded the scope of the federal RFRA. Now the question is whether these bills will rebound with the same level of intensity next year. Already, the answer looks to be "yes," as evidenced by the fact that a Republican lawmaker in Louisiana filed a religious freedom bill on Friday — practically before the ink was even dry on the RFRA fixes in Indiana and Arkansas.
“The debate on this bill is far from over,” said state Rep. Carl Ford, a Republican who sponsored a religious freedom measure in North Carolina, via his weekly newsletter. Earlier this week, the state's Republican House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters he would take a hard look at the bill to make sure it wouldn’t “harm our brand.” And Gov. Pat McCrory, also a Republican, questioned the need for a religious freedom measure while speaking on a Charlotte radio station, saying that the bill “makes no sense.”
Michigan’s Snyder said he was “working hard to see if there is a better way to address religious freedom and equality.” One solution he put forth was to expand Michigan’s Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act to include housing and employment protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Civil liberties advocates and a growing list of tech leaders have been pushing for such expansions, as nearly 30 states currently have no non-discrimination protections for LGBT people at the state level. It’s unlikely, however, that Michigan’s legislature will take up an expansion of the state’s civil rights act this year — which makes the chances of Snyder signing a RFRA slim to none.
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Meanwhile, three religious freedom bills moving forward in Texas also seem to have hit a wall this week. Texas has had a RFRA on the books for 15 years, but one of the new proposals would enshrine the law in the state Constitution — without existing language that protects LGBT people from discrimination.
“This thing is equally bad or worse than Indiana, and look what’s happening there,” Bill Hammond, CEO of the Texas Association of Business told the Houston Chronicle. Citing the “national attention” Indiana received this week, State Affairs Committee Chair Byron Cook said that the House must be "very thoughtful" about bringing similar legislation up for a vote.