On Monday, Georgia governor Nathan Deal said he will veto legislation that could have allowed businesses to legally discriminate against customers, based on religious objections to their customers' lifestyles.
The veto caps a turbulent period, following the state legislature's passage of a bill called HB 757 by an overwhelming majority. As the bill headed to the governor's desk, hundreds of business owners in the state voiced their objections to the legislation, known as a Religious Freedom Restoration Act ( RFRA) bill. They were joined by some of the nation's largest companies, including Dell Computers, Delta Airlines, Wells Fargo Bank, and UPS, and prominent technology companies such as Google, Salesforce, and Twitter.
The bill, which passed in the state senate in February, passed in Georgia's lower chamber last week by a vote of 104-65. State lawmakers broadened an earlier bill for religious institutions to include state officials and business owners, essentially giving them, opponents say, the freedom to legally deny services to people of whom they disapprove, which could include lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, or unwed mothers.
Salesforce founder and chief executive Marc Benioff has been the most outspoken entrepreneur on the issue, suggesting Salesforce might reduce investment in the state if the bill passed. Shortly after the veto was announced, Benioff made his thoughts known in a tweet:
Small-business owners such as 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, also expressed their approval of the veto. Over the past couple of weeks, Tolleson says, customers had called voicing concerns about doing projects in the state. After the veto was announced, customers called to express relief and support, he says.
Tolleson also says he is a Salesforce customer, and he appreciates Benioff's willingness to get involved.
"By engaging on social issues that affect employees, this is a great case study that, in today's society, having an inclusive company that understands the civil and human rights of its employees is just good business," he says.
Georgia's bill resembles one that was eventually vetoed in Indiana, where prominent tech companies--including Salesforce, as well as Angie's list, which is headquartered in Indianapolis--threatened boycotts if the measure was passed. Arizona experienced a similar outcry over an anti-LGBT bill in 2014.
HB 757 is an example of what are termed Religious Freedom Reformation Act (RFRA) bills, and in their current form they give businesses and other organizations the right to withhold services from would-be customers based on religious objections. Although there is a long history stretching back to the 1990s of legislation aimed at protecting religious minorities, the new batch of bills 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.
Georgia's RFRA bill passed in the state assembly the same week North Carolina passed legislation, signed by the governor, that prohibits including LGBT people in the statewide protections for minorities. It is legal to fire someone for being LGBT in 28 states, including Georgia, as such employees are not protected by state anti-discrimination laws.
As Georgia's bill passed in both houses with large majorities, there's the possibility the state legislature could override the veto, according to some legal experts.
Correction: An earlier version of this story suggested Salesforce had planned to move its business from Georgia if HB 757 passed. Salesforce suggested it might reduce its investment in the state, and move a digital marketing conference to another locale.