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HB 757 spurs cheers, warnings February 23, 2016 Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Originally published on Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Religious conservatives celebrate bill, but some fear it’ll cripple economy.

By Kristina Torres

Corporate concerns over Georgia’s latest “religious liberty” legislation have taken on a new urgency following passage last week of a measure that would allow opponents of same-sex marriage to cite their beliefs in denying services to gay couples.

It comes as religious conservatives over the weekend celebrated the Georgia Senate’s vote to approve House Bill 757, sending the measure for a final look by the state House as soon as this week.

“To our Founding Fathers, there was simply nothing more important to our nation than the freedom to live by our religious convictions and to practice our faith free from the tyranny of those who mock our deeply held faith,” said J. Robert White, the executive director of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. “It is wrong to accuse persons of discrimination who live and conduct their businesses according to their deeply held religious beliefs.”

But small businesses owners and corporate leaders have begun to speak out directly about what they said would be a crippling economic impact if the bill becomes law.

HB 757 would enable faith- based organizations and individuals to opt out of serving couples — gay or straight — or following anti-discrimination requirements if they cite a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction regarding marriage.

“It would really do irreparable harm to our brand as a state,” said Brian Tolleson, who owns a digital entertainment company called Bark Bark that works with studios and media companies on everything from production to marketing.

“This very assembly working on this bill has invested billions of taxpayer dollars growing an industry that would leave this state,” said Tolleson, who has clients from New York to Los Angeles. “They will boycott coming to shoot anything here. The powers that be in the industry really want to defeat Georgia’s rise as an entertainment destination. And we’re handing it to them on a silver platter.”

The executives of 373k, a telecom startup based in Decatur, decided to move to Nevada immediately after the Georgia Senate approved the measure Friday.

Founder Kelvin Williams said in an interview that he knows the legislation is not yet law — and may be substantially changed or halted — but that he was so disgusted by the legislation that he decided to call the moving vans.

“It makes no sense. It’s absolutely unnecessary. We are a startup and we are trying to get the best talent we can,” said Williams, who is gay. “And I don’t want to be in a state where it is hard to attract the best talent.”

Leaders of the 1.3 million-member Georgia Baptist Mission Board have led an effort for the past two years to call on lawmakers to pass bills they said would protect religious viewpoints and prevent discrimination against religious groups. This year, for the first time, they explicitly linked the effort to same-sex marriage after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that state prohibitions on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.

Tolleson’s remarks about the entertainment industry come as Gov. Nathan Deal earlier this year forcefully defended tax breaks that have made Georgia a hub for the film industry.

The film tax credit cost the state more than a quarter of a billion dollars. But Deal in January told lawmakers and others that it was worth the tradeoff, citing a trade industry group’s estimation that the film and television industry is responsible for more than 79,000 jobs, roughly $4 billion in wages and has helped bring 120 more firms to Georgia in the past seven years.

Senate leaders, including Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, have said the bill is narrowly written and aims to protect groups or people such as a faith-based adoption agency, local youth group or preachers who sincerely believe marriage should be between a man and a woman, or that sexual relations between two people are properly reserved to such a marriage.

Other business owners, however, said it wasn’t just the entertainment industry that could feel the effect of the legislation.

“For 95 percent of people, it is very difficult to distinguish all of the subtleties of this bill’s effect,” said Michael Russell, the CEO of the Atlanta-based HJ Russell & Co. — one of the largest minority-owned real estate firms in the nation. “At the end of the day, I’m very concerned about the message it sends: The leaders of this state are not providing a positive climate of inclusion.”

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, whose chamber has yet to take up the Senate measure, said Monday, “We’ve been hearing those concerns all along, not just from the film industry but from other sectors in our economy here in Georgia.

“It’s a very emotional issue,” he added. “It’s an issue that is going to have consequences.”

Deal said Monday that the legislation is a work in progress and that he and his top aides are working with Ralston and other legislative leaders.

“We’re working with the leadership of the General Assembly now as that bill is continuing to move through the process,” he said. “So we’ll see.”

He added, “I don’t comment until things are finalized, but it’s not finalized yet.”

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

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