David Goldman / AP

Georgia businesses assess costs of ‘religious freedom’ law

Businesses study the financial impact of boycotts if legislation seen as anti-gay is passed

When the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce hired economist Tom Cunningham to fill a newly created position in July, one of his first assignments was to study the potential economic consequences if “religious freedoms” legislation is enacted in Georgia.

“The idea was, ‘This stuff could make an impact,’” said Cunningham. “It was clear there were potential losses associated with bad outcomes from the legislation.” 

This was clear to him because Indiana was targeted by a wide range of boycotts after its version of the law passed only months earlier. The boycotts were based on widespread public opinion that the law sanctioned discrimination against LGBT people.

Cunningham’s study, released in November, estimated that Georgia could lose at least $1 billion if such a law is passed in the state. The same month, the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, a tourism agency, produced a report predicting similar losses for the state. Around the same time, former state Senate Majority Leader Ronnie Chance began meeting with a small group of business leaders concerned about the issue.

The growing sense of unease came to a head earlier this month, only days before Georgia’s 2016 Legislature convened, with the launch of Georgia Prospers, a coalition of several hundred businesses, including large corporations emblematic of the state such as Coca-Cola, Home Depot and Delta Airlines.  

The coalition’s purpose: “to oppose discrimination of any kind,” said Chance, now a spokesman for the group. “In fact, the first thing you think of when you think of the South is racial discrimination. No discrimination is good, with the history we have.”

He took pains to point out that the coalition is not an advocacy or lobbying group, with no mention on its new website of SB 129 — the third attempt in Georgia in three years to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (or RFRA, modeled after the federal law of the same name). Nonetheless, the group may well be a game changer in the ongoing conflict over such legislation and a sign of things to come in state-by-state battles over the issue. 

“It’s definitely a bellwether,” said Robin Fretwell Wilson, a professor of law at the University of Illinois and the author of “Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty.”

At least two similar groups have launched in recent months: Texas Competes and Indiana Competes. Jeremy Pittman, the deputy field director of the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., said these coalitions have formed also as a result of the increased visibility of LGBT employees in America’s workplaces.

Jessica Shortall, a founder of Texas Competes, said the group is “concerned about the brand of Texas.” The point is to avoid law or policy that would be perceived as discriminatory, and the Texas group’s website, unlike Georgia’s, makes specific mention of the LGBT population. “It is well known that in Texas, the rhetoric against the LGBT population ramps up during the legislative session,” she said. “And rhetoric affects brands as much as legislation.”

Cunningham wrote in his report that social media amplified public reaction to Indiana’s legislation, with the state the subject of more than 1 billion negative Twitter impressions in the weeks after passing its RFRA. “People use social media to target a company or region based on what they believe to be true,” said Suzanne C. Makarem, an assistant professor of marketing at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of a study, cited in Cunningham’s report, about Twitter’s role in consumer boycotts.

State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, and a sponsor of SB 129, has said that his law is not like Indiana’s and is meant only to ensure that government may not interfere with any person’s practice of religion without demonstrating compelling interest. It does not allow discrimination against LGBT people, he has insisted — although the legislation got stuck in committee in 2015 after anti-discrimination language was added. He did not return repeated requests for comment.

But his former colleague Chance said what matters is how any legislation is perceived. “At some point,” he said, “perception becomes reality. It’s easy to say a specific legislation is not going to do this or that, but by the time it’s passed, it’s too late.”

Still, the state’s business community is being careful about not appearing to take a stance on the legislation — despite disparaging comments McKoon has made about large corporation CEOs “not [being] from Georgia” and having “different values.”

William Pate, the president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, said, “It’s not my job to decide whether the state should pass this bill or that. My job is to let legislators know the potential economic impact.”

But Pittman noted that major corporations have lobbyists in every state and that those efforts “dovetail” with projects like Georgia Prospers. 

It would seem Georgia Prospers has the backing of too many major corporations to be ignored. “There’s no way you can blow these people off,” Wilson said. “They’re too much a part of the economic power base.”

The academic, who advises legislatures on RFRA, thinks such groups will show up elsewhere, and pressure advocates, legislators, religious leaders and others to work together. “Combining religious liberty and anti-discrimination will get traction,” she said. “It’s going to pull people to the table to finally listen to each others’ interests.”

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