Under pressure from the entertainment industry and major corporations, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal on Monday vetoed a “religious liberty” bill that would have made it legal to deny services to gay people.
His decision stands in sharp contrast to the situation in North Carolina, where Gov. Pat McCrory vowed to defend a new state law that prohibits legal protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, even as civil rights advocates filed a lawsuit Monday to strike it down.
The two states are the latest battlegrounds in what is becoming a state-by-state fight between liberals and conservatives over who can be granted – or denied – protections related to housing, employment and even access to public bathrooms.
The conflict has only grown since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last summer to legalize same-sex marriage, which emboldened civil rights activists to seek greater protections.
They have made headway in predominantly liberal cities, where local governments sympathetic to the cause have favored anti-discrimination laws that guarantee transgender people the right to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity and prevent employers firing people for being gay.
At the same time, conservative legislatures have been moving limit transgender bathroom use and expand exemptions allowing people to deny services that might conflict with their religious beliefs.
In response, national advocacy groups, celebrities and businesses have threatened boycotts to put pressure on governors and legislatures to back down from those plans.
At least for now, they have claimed victory in Georgia.
Lawmakers there passed the Free Exercise Protection Act on March 16 with the aim of ensuring that a pastor could not be forced to perform a same-sex wedding and that nonprofit faith-based organizations could legally refuse to rent or lease property for events they found objectionable.
The bill also sought to give such groups the right to fire or not hire people whose practices they opposed on religious grounds.
The legislation met sustained opposition from major players in the movie and television industries, which increasingly have been filming in Georgia because of its tax breaks and lower labor costs.
Disney and Marvel threatened to stop film production there if Deal signed the bill into law. Apple, Comcast, Dell, Time Warner, Sony Pictures and other companies urged the governor to veto it. At least 40 actors and filmmakers, including Anne Hathaway and Julianne Moore, joined the rebellion.
When Deal announced he was vetoing the bill at a news conference Monday, he said he was not just providing a business-friendly climate for job growth in Georgia but also embracing Georgia’s image as “a welcoming state.”
He insisted, however, he was following his own conscience and not succumbing to the outside pressure.
“To those within the business community, some of whom – not all, by any stretch – have resorted to threats of withdrawing jobs from our state, they should know: I do not respond very well to insults or threats,” Deal said.
The Motion Picture Association of America, a trade organization that represents the studios, lauded the veto, releasing a statement that “we look forward to continuing to work with the Governor and the State Legislature to expand and enhance the motion picture and television industry in the state.”
In contrast, North Carolina has stood firm on its legislation.
The state law, which was passed in a special session and bans cities from passing their own anti-discrimination ordinances, came in response to the city of Charlotte’s decision to do just that. It also restricts people to the bathroom corresponding to the gender on their birth certificates.
Opponents of the Charlotte law had repeatedly suggested that transgender women as potential pedophiles, with little evidence.
“You know, $42,000 is not going to cover the medical expenses when a pervert walks into a bathroom and my little girls are in there,” said one Republican state senator, Andrew Brock.
He was alluding to the $42,000 cost of holding a special session, according to the Salisbury Post.
[Charlotte Observer: NC McCrory blames ‘inaccurate’ news stories for backlash against LGBT law]
The federal lawsuit filed Monday comes from a coalition of advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal and Equality NC. They are seeking an injunction against the new law on the grounds that it violates the Fourteenth Amendment as well as Title IX.
“North Carolina is going to be a cautionary tale of what happens when the government decides to discriminate” against its own people, said Lambda Legal attorney Peter Renn, one of the attorneys on the case. “Let’s be clear: You will be sued if you pass a law like this,” he said.
Payton McGarry, a 20-year-old transgender student at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, said he decided to become a plaintiff in the lawsuit after listening to the “appalling” way lawmakers described transgender people.
When McGarry, who was born a girl, began transitioning to boy in high school, the bathroom suddenly became one of his biggest danger zones.
He said he was pushed, slapped and screamed at by girls who thought he was a boy in the wrong bathroom. He started avoiding restrooms – to the point that he developed urinary tract infections.
“It took such a toll on my mental well being, to think, ‘Hey, could this bathroom be the one where I finally get beaten to a pulp?’” McGarry said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. He said that he has not faced discrimination as a transgender man at college.
McGarry criticized lawmakers’ claims that the bill was passed for the privacy and safety of girls and women in restrooms.
“If you want to know what kind of genitals I have, then it’s you invading my privacy,” McGarry said. “You are trading the safety and well being of transgender people for this perceived threat that doesn’t really exist.”
In response to the lawsuit Monday, the governor’s office decried the “distortion of the facts” by activists and the media.
“The governor will continue to set the record straight on a common sense resolution to local government overreach that imposed new regulations on businesses that intruded into the personal lives of our citizens,” spokesman Graham Wilson said in a statement.
Now, both sides expect a showdown in court.
(Staff writer Pearce reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Jarvie from Atlanta. Staff writers Daniel Miller and Libby Hill contributed to this report.)