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Why 'religious freedom' bill failed
Dick Yarbrough
Dick Yarbrough is a syndicated columnist who writes about Georgia. - photo by File photo

Before you get your shorts in a wad, the following observations in no way indicate my preference for or opposition to the recent "religious freedom" bill vetoed by Gov. Nathan Deal. My personal opinions are irrelevant to this discussion. Rather, this is a refresher course in Politics 101.

In a democracy, there are only two ways a political decision can be made: The application of pressure or the lack thereof. In other words, you either apply pressure on those who are making the decision or you keep the pressure off so they can come to the conclusion you desire.

It was obvious that in the case of the religious-freedom bill, there was more pressure put on the governor to veto the bill than there was pressure to sign it. Most major companies in the state, along with chambers of commerce, the entertainment industry, the Atlanta professional sports franchises, the National Football League and a number of ministers strongly opposed the bill and were vocal in predicting dire consequences if it was signed by the governor.

Having spent most of my life in a large corporation, I can tell you that the last thing a company wants is controversy. Management doesn’t like it and, most importantly, shareholders don’t like it. Big companies are an easy target for special interest groups, and it was obvious that many of the corporations had heard from those opposed to the bill and not as many who were in favor.

That leads me to communications. The opponents of the bill were clear and succinct in stating the reasons why the bill should be defeated and, if it passed the Legislature, why it should be vetoed.

In my opinion, proponents of the religious-freedom bill did a poor job of communicating their case. They stayed on the defensive through much of the debate and seemed unable to clearly articulate the need for such a law.

Had the proponents asked me, I would have suggested they find a better spokesperson for their cause than state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, a publicity hound of the first magnitude and a man with little influence among his colleagues. Also, the Baptist spokesman who likened our state government to Nazi Germany didn’t exactly help things. He may have thought that overstatement would energize his base, but I doubt that it added many converts. It was a stupid thing to say.

Will the effort to convene a special session of the General Assembly to override the governor’s veto come to pass? Not likely. In the first place, people in the know say the votes aren’t there to override the veto. In the second place, I don’t think most Georgians would be happy to spend some $40,000 a day — the estimated cost for reconvening the Legislature — to find out. And then there is the fact that a number of legislators have announced their retirement. Chances of getting them to come back to Atlanta for such a session would rank between slim and none.

Finally, remember this: In Georgia, the governor — whoever he might be — has a lot of power to wield. Legislators take on the governor and his staff at their own political risk. Posturing is one thing. Threatening is another. You may have missed Gov. Deal’s comment in his veto message: "I do not respond well to insults or threats." Be forewarned. Governors have a number of ways to punish recalcitrant legislators. Like it or not, that is just a political fact of life.

Proponents of the religious-freedom effort say they will be back at it again next session. If they hope to be successful, they need to do a better job than they did this session. Get an articulate spokesperson (someone like Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Cobb.) Get some clear and concise messages. Have some tangible examples to cite as to why the legislation is needed. Let businesses know that they will pay the price for their opposition. Threaten to boycott them and their services. Broaden your base of support. Make friends and allies. Talk to civic clubs. PTAs. Garden clubs. Run ads advocating the need for the bill.

It is said there are only two things certain in this world: Death and taxes. To that I would add the successful application of political pressure if you want a piece of legislation to become law. It will be interesting to see how well the religious-freedom advocates have learned this lesson, if at all. Right now, they are blaming everybody but themselves.

Contact Yarbrough at; at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139; and online at or

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