Eric Tanenblatt: Gov. Nathan Deal's Conservative Choice

Eric Tanenblatt

Monday, April 11th, 2016

The action by Georgia's Republican governor this week to formally block a controversial religious liberty proposal caught some allies under the Gold Dome by surprise: the GOP-sponsored bill had sailed through both chambers on a heavy margin and the governor himself supported a related federal measure while serving in the U.S. Congress.

Embittered and desperate, critics have taken to maligning the governor's conservative credentials and even the strength of his faith. How could a genuine religious conservative, the angry chorus demanded, stonewall protections for those of faith?

But the answer, as it were, is found in the question itself: Nathan Deal halted the bill because of his religious conservativism—not in spite of it.

In fact, those in the capitol surprised that the governor would exercise his veto power must not have been paying attention for the last five years.

Nathan Deal has presided over a period of transformational economic activity across the state of Georgia. Existing industry has grown, new cottage industries have exploded, and Georgians everywhere are finding it easier to work.

That wasn't by accident but instead deliberate policy to grow business and foster healthy community. The Free Expression Protection Act would have undone five years of conservative governing. The only surprise here is how silly his critics have become.

In the weeks before the legislation's abrupt passage, Deal told a reporter he believed the then-as-proposed bill, which would have granted faith-based, taxpayer-funded organizations the right to deny critical services and employment on the basis of a sincerely-held religious belief, was discordant with biblical teachings.

"We do not have a belief in my way of looking at religion that says we have to discriminate against anybody," Deal said. "If you were to apply those standards to the teaching of Jesus, I don’t think they fit.”

Faith informed the governor's actions, that's plainly clear. But so too did conservative orthodoxy.

This legislation was always a big government solution in search of a phantom problem.

As the governor explained in a March 28 press conference, the statutory reality in Georgia — there are no public accommodations or statewide nondiscrimination laws that have created instances in other states where religious conservatives felt punished by government for demonstrating their faith—means that the bill was unnecessary and could instead, he warned, facilitate "state-sanctioned discrimination" against marginalized groups.

Republicans would have unwittingly grown government for the sake of a problem that does not exist. Worse, they would have unwittingly allowed hard-earned tax dollars to fuel discrimination.

Religious freedom is foundational to American life; there's a reason it's enshrined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. But that central freedom does not confer the right to harm others, and that's precisely what this bill would have allowed.

The spirit of the Free Expression Protection Act wasn't conservative. It wasn't in harmony with the character of Georgia, either.

"Georgia is a welcoming state filled with warm, friendly and loving people. … We are working to make life better for our families and our communities," the governor said March 28. "That is the character of Georgia. I intend to do my part to keep it that way."

Eric Tanenblatt is a leader of the Public Policy and Regulation practice at the global law firm Dentons.  He previously served in the Administrations of President George H. W. Bush and President George W. Bush, acted as a senior advisor to the late U.S. Senator Paul Coverdell, and served as chief of staff to Governor Sonny Perdue.