Hundreds of businesses in Georgia are making vociferous objections to a bill that may allow companies and religious organizations to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in the state.

The so-called religious freedom bill, which passed in the state Senate in February, passed overwhelmingly in the Georgia's lower chamber on Wednesday evening. State lawmakers broadened an earlier bill for religious institutions to include state officials and business owners, essentially giving them, opponents say, the freedom to deny services to people of whom they disapprove.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff is among the prominent business executives who quickly denounced the developments in Georgia. He tweeted his opposition to the bill on Thursday:

Benioff, whose business employs an unspecified number of people in Atlanta through its Pardot marketing software subsidiary, had tweeted about the issue in late February as well, asking followers if they thought the company should cancel a May conference. Eighty percent of more than 6,000 respondents said the company should do so.  Senior vice president of sales Warren Wick also sent a letter to state legislators saying Salesforce might not continue operating in the state if the bill is signed into law, and the company released a statement reiterating that position.

Other high-profile executives have spoken and tweeted about the issue, including Michael Dell, the founder of Dell Computers.

And nearly 500 prominent companies including Google, Twitter, and UPS, Wells Fargo, as well as the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce have signed a petition opposing the legislation via a business group called Georgia Prospers.

"This legislation is in conflict with the values of diversity and inclusion that Georgians hold dear and could erode Georgia's hard-earned status as the No. 1 state for business," The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce said in an email.

Small business owners in the state have also expressed outrage about the bill. Brian Tolleson, founder and chief executive of Bark Bark, a 30-person Atlanta-based branding strategy company that coordinates advertising campaigns between the entertainment industry and consumer brands, says its impact on Georgia's economy could be devastating. The bill has already led at least one one of its LGBT-owned clients to reconsider shooting an ad campaign in Georgia, Tolleson says.

Similarly, Matt Bronfman, the chief executive of Jamestown Properties, worries the legislation may make it more difficult to attract fast-growth businesses to the area. Jamestown is a national developer and property management company with 300 employees, and offices in Atlanta.

"The type of companies we try to attract [are looking for] 20-something talent to help take the company to the next level," Bronfman says. "And that next-generation, talented work force doesn't want to live in a state with legalized discrimination." Bronfman adds that he's gotten concerned inquiries from prospective customers who are rethinking whether they should locate in Atlanta.

Multiple states have religious freedom laws

Georgia's bill resembles one that was eventually vetoed in Indiana, as prominent tech companies--including Salesforce, as well as Angie's list, which is headquartered in Indianapolis--threatened to boycott the state if the measure was passed. Arizona experienced a similar outcry over an anti-LGBT bill in 2014.

The bills are loosely termed Religious Freedom Reformation Act (RFRA) bills, and in their current form they give businesses and other organizations the right to withhold services from clientele based on religious objections. Although there is a long history stretching back to the 1990s of legislation aimed at protecting religious minorities, a new batch of bills has cropped up in reaction to state movements to grant LGBT people the right to marry. The efforts to pass them have only grown stronger since last June when the Supreme Court granted same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide.

None of the sponsors of the Georgia House's bill, known as HB 757, returned Inc.'s requests for comment. State Senator Josh McKoon, who co-sponsored the equivalent bill in the senate, was unable to comment by deadline. 

Hobby Lobby, a craft-store chain, won a 2014 Supreme Court case in which its owners claimed rights under a federal religious freedom law, though on limited grounds. The High Court exempted privately owned companies from having to follow the Affordable Care Act's requirements for providing birth control, if they have religious objections.

Currently 21 states have RFRA laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And as of September 2015, there were proposals in 17 state legislatures to enact new laws or alter language of older laws. These are separate from the federal RFRA law, which arose from a Supreme Court challenge to the religious practices of a Native American group in Oregon in the 1990s. None of the state versions have been overturned or had significant challenges in courts.

Georgia's governor, Nathan Deal, a Republican, has voiced his opposition to the discriminatory principles of the bill. He is expected to either veto it or leave it unsigned, at least in its current form, according to news sources.

Published on: Mar 18, 2016