Whatever decision he reached on House Bill 757, Gov. Nathan Deal was going to call someone’s bluff. His veto of the religious-liberty bill, which he announced Monday morning amid a wave of (often hypocritical) corporate denunciations and threats, makes clear who is now on the spot.
That would be everyone who said religious liberty needs no further clarification or protection.
So we can expect those who say churches shouldn’t remain tax-exempt, particularly if they continue certain teachings, to lose in the public square. We can expect those who say Georgia didn’t need legal clarifications that churches can do as they wish with their property to win the day, and not those who might sue churches over such matters. We can expect all those things critics of the bill said “would never happen” to, well, not happen now that it’s been vetoed. (We can also look forward to a “strange new respect” among the bill’s critics for corporate political speech, which clearly was vital to Deal’s decision to veto.)
A number of people have asked for examples in which religious liberty was infringed in Georgia. But this was always about the future, not the past. Investment prospectuses include a line to effect of “past performance does not guarantee future results.” This maxim was implicit in efforts to secure religious-liberty legislation. We are a nation of pendulum swings, and falling pendulums don’t stop dead in the center; they continue in the other direction. To stop suddenly in the middle would defy the laws of physics.
And to do so in the arena of public policy would defy the laws of our politics. The courts will be called on to keep things more or less in balance, but in this case they will do so with less of a legal frame of reference for measuring the pendulum’s arc.
Practically speaking, Georgia isn’t finished hearing about this issue. That, too, would have been true no matter what Deal did regarding HB 757. Unfortunately, the new starting point will be one of heightened antagonism on both sides of the issue.
The antagonism would only be worse if legislators were to hold a “veto session” to override Deal on the bill, as at least one state senator has already called for. (Keep in mind, he’s running in a Republican primary for Congress right now, in a district that’s loaded with social conservatives.) Even if overriding the veto were a good idea, it’s not going to happen: There weren’t 120 votes for the final text of HB 757 when the House passed it earlier this month, and there wouldn’t be 120 votes for it if legislators were to return to the Gold Dome. It would be an exercise in grandstanding, nothing more, and it almost certainly won’t happen.
I honestly don’t know at this point if the various parties involved in this debate could be brought back to the table for negotiations that would lead to something all could live with. I would like to see it tried, at least on a quiet and informal basis, because otherwise we will have another session in which this issue looms over all else. While I believe Georgia would be better off with the strict scrutiny test for free-exercise cases, the debate is only welcome come next January if it can lead to a resolution.