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Disney, NFL could boycott Georgia over 'religious freedom' bill

The stakes have been raised over a controversial religious freedom bill awaiting the signature of the state's Republican governor, Nathan Deal.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal speaks with reporters at the Capitol, Jan. 12, 2016, in Atlanta. (Photo by David Goldman/AP)
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal speaks with reporters at the Capitol, Jan. 12, 2016, in Atlanta.

The stakes have been raised for a controversial religious freedom bill awaiting the signature of Republican Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.

The Free Exercise Protection Act (H.B. 757) allows businesses to deny services to gay and lesbian couples by citing religious principles. Several major media companies, as well as the NFL, have suggested that should the governor sign the legislation, which critics say is discriminatory against the LGBT community, it may effect the business they do in the state.

"The governor has been very clear as to where he stands on this issue and will assess the legislation during bill review," Jen Talaber Ryan, the governor's deputy chief of staff for communications, told MSNBC on Thursday. "That review will take place in the coming weeks, and Gov. Deal has until May 3 to decide whether to sign or veto it."

Deal has previously called for revisions to the legislation and has said “It’s not on my agenda item. It’s not one of those issues that I have been pushing."

"I know that there are a lot of Georgians who feel like this is a necessary step for us to take. I would hope that in the process of these last few days, we can keep in mind the concerns of the faith-based community, which I believe can be protected without setting up the situation where we could be accused of allowing or encouraging discrimination,” he added while addressing reporters earlier this month.

Deal later went on to reference his own Christian faith, and argued that: "What the New Testament teaches us is that Jesus reached out to those who were considered the outcasts, the ones that did not conform to the religious societies’ view of the world ... We do not have a belief in my way of looking at religion that says we have to discriminate against anybody. If you were to apply those standards to the teaching of Jesus, I don’t think they fit.”

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However, as the controversial bill made its way to the governor's desk, companies and organizations in a variety of industries have spoken out against it, a position that could negatively effect the state's economy. 

"We would certainly hope that the governor hasn't changed his position at all," Dan Rafter, a spokesman for the gay rights organization Freedom For All Americans, told MSNBC on Thursday. "Georgia has worked so hard to be a great place for business to come and relocate. It's mind boggling that they would jeopardize all that."

But what, exactly, is at stake?

The favor of the NFL

When it comes to America's most popular sport — football — the city of Atlanta could lose their bid to host the Super Bowl in 2019. A new stadium being built for the Atlanta Falcons is scheduled to open in 2017, just in time to vie for the biggest game of the year.

"NFL policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard," the league recently told the Atlanta Constitution-Journal in a statement. "Whether the laws and regulations of a state and local community are consistent with these policies would be one of many factors NFL owners may use to evaluate potential Super Bowl host sites."

The NFL's willingness to weigh in on a state's political agenda when it comes to its highly rated championship game was widely seen as a significant factor in Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's decision to veto a religious freedom bill put forth in 2014. (Indeed, the NFL was the determining factor in Arizona's decision to finally recognize and adopt Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the early 1990s by threatening to withhold Super Bowl XXVII from Tempe.)

Sports fans will also recall that the NCAA's strong stand against a similarly polarizing bill that was eventually signed into law in Indiana had a real impact on public opinion against that measure. And earlier this year, the nation saw the impact sports can have on policy firsthand, when threats of a boycott from members of the University of Missouri's football team hastened the exit of the school's president Tim Wolfe, who had drawn widespread criticism for his handling of racial events on campus. But the NFL has a unique reach all its own.

"The NFL is the most powerful cultural institution we have in America," OutSports managing editor Cyd Zeigler told MSNBC on Thursday. "America looks to the NFL for guidance. It looks to the NFL for leadership whether the league wants to accept it or not."

Zeigler believes the NFL entering into this fight could have a positive impact, but also points out the fact that next year's Super Bowl is still scheduled to be played in Houston, despite the fact that the city rejected a civil rights ordinance which would have protected its LGBT citizens late last year. Zeigler says the NFL has the power to move that game to another location, but the question remains: "How much heavy lifting are they willing to do?"

"Sports leagues don't want to do this ... they do not want to wade into social justice issues" he said. "It's just that now they have to. I think that everyone in America is more aware of things like racism, sexism and homophobia than they were even 40 years ago at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. And they are also more aware of the power of the purse."

Billions from the film and television industry

As the third most popular destination for Hollywood productions in the U.S. (after California and New York), Georgia could miss out on millions of dollars from blockbuster films and television shows being made within its borders. According to Georgia’s Economic Development Department, nearly 250 film productions planted their flags there in the fiscal year of 2015, generating about $1.7 billion in revenue. 

The state is home to the hit AMC cable series "The Walking Dead," but if the religious freedom bill becomes a reality the network implied that they too would rethink their relationship. “As a company, AMC Networks believes that discrimination of any kind is reprehensible. We applaud Governor Deal’s leadership in resisting a previous version of this divisive legislation and urge him to reject the current version as well,” they said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times.

Disney has also balked at the legislation. They have made several hit Marvel movies (including "Ant-Man" and the upcoming "Captain America: Civil War" and "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2") in the Atlanta area, in part because of the state's generous tax breaks. But the company has no interest in being associated with the bill. "Disney and Marvel are inclusive companies, and although we have had great experiences filming in Georgia, we will plan to take our business elsewhere should any legislation allowing discriminatory practices be signed into state law," a company spokesman told The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday.

RELATED: Candidates thread the needle on 'religious freedom'

The Human Rights Campaign said in a statement shared with MSNBC: “We applaud Disney and Marvel for standing up for fairness and equality by sending a strong warning to Governor Deal. It’s appalling that anti-LGBT activists in Georgia are trying to pass legislation creating an explicit right to discriminate against LGBT Americans. We urge other studios, major corporations, and fair-minded Georgians to continue speaking out and urging Gov. Deal to veto this heinous piece of legislation sitting on his desk.”

At a gay rights gala held this past weekend in Los Angeles, Chad Griffin, the president of HRC, urged supporters in Hollywood to boycott Georgia should the state "license to discriminate" bill become law. “That is wrong. It’s un-American,” Griffin told attendees. “It’s an affront on all the values Hollywood prides itself on. And you have the influence and the opportunity to not only defeat this bill, but to send a message that there are consequences to passing dangerous and hateful laws like this.” 

On Thursday, a number of influential figures in the entertainment industry, including Julianne Moore, Anne Hathaway, Seth MacFarlane, Harvey Weinstein, Lee Daniels and Aaron Sorkin, signed on to a letter drafted by the HRC urging Deal to use his veto pen.

"It's also important to point out that while anti-LGBT animus may be driving a lot of the push behind this bill, the way it's written could affect a lot of people beyond the LGBT community as well," Rafter said, pointing out that single mothers and other groups of people could theoretically be denied services because their lifestyles may be deemed an affront to the religious values of a business owner. 

Beyond the NFL and Hollywood, it appears that several other companies are paying attention, as well. Apple, Time Warner, Viacom, Delta Airlines and Georgia-based companies like Coca-Cola, Home Depot, UPS and Cox Enterprises, have all also called on Deal to reject the bill. "A lot of these companies, they realize that discrimination and laws like this create a very toxic environment that makes it harder to attract talent," Rafter said. "Discrimination is bad for business."

Potential boycotts not unique to Georgia

As Deal weighs his decision, another fight might already be gearing up. North Carolina is drawing swift condemnation for a bill signed into law Wednesday night by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. That legislation, which has been described as the "broadest anti-LGBT bill in the country," blocks cities and counties from passing LGBT discrimination protections and even bars transgender people from using the bathroom of the gender with which they identify. 

State Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue said the law, which was passed overwhelmingly in the state legislatures, “essentially repeals 50 years of non-discrimination efforts and gives lawmakers in Raleigh unprecedented control over our city and local governments.”

Senate Democrats boycotted the vote, so the final tally was 32-0.

“North Carolina Republicans want to pass what would potentially be the single most discriminatory act in the country. This is a direct affront to equality, civil rights, and local autonomy,” Blue added.

In the wake of the North Carolina law, Ziegler argues, "Everyone has an opportunity now to demonstrate how serious they are about this type of thing." He suggested that the NCAA could follow-up on previous opposition to homophobia by yanking upcoming college basketball games from the state. And while he wouldn't expect the NFC Champion Carolina Panthers to relocate, he would "like to see them donate $1 million dollars to a LGBT community center."

But perhaps the most powerful rebuke of the North Carolina bill could be a more personal act of courage. "How incredible would it be for a Carolina Panther or someone within the organization to come out publicly?" Ziegler of OutSports magazine asked rhetorically. "It would shift conversation real fast. I would love for athletes to see this and say, 'This is the right time to do this because if I don’t do this nobody else will.'"

"The tidal wave ... is toward acceptance," he added. "There is nothing that is going to stop that."