Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
Georgia’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been stalled for four years amid fears it will deter economic investment. Will Amazon finally kill it?
Cities competing to lure Amazon’s second headquarters have presented an array of economic incentives. But the competition may be eliciting at least one state to reconsider how its policies affect LGBTQ residents, too.
Georgia has been fighting for four years to pass a religious freedom law, modeled after other states’ Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA). LGBTQ advocates warn that these laws could be used for “state-sanctioned discrimination,” empowering vendors to refuse employment or deny services to LGBTQ individuals, such as refusing to provide a cake for a same-sex wedding. The 2016 version of Georgia’s bill explicitly permitted pastors to refuse to perform same-sex marriages.
Now, while Georgia prepares to vote on it once more in early 2018, its capital city, Atlanta, angles for a spot on Amazon’s shortlist. Atlanta is already high on many speculators’ lists of potential winners—with a large airport, tech talent pool, and low cost of living acting as major draws.
It’s been big business, time and time again, that has deterred Georgia from passing legislation that would restrict LGBTQ freedoms. But never before has the business been this big. Amazon has already milked hopeful states out of unprecedented amounts of pledged cash; could they also prompt Georgia to give up the religious freedom fight?
Already, officials in Republican Governor Nathan Deal’s office have warned candidates running for office that religious freedom rhetoric could deter Amazon, while many Republican candidates have pushed back to say that they will not be cowed by the prospect of Amazon into diluting their views.
“[Amazon] is a big enough fish that it should change the mindset of legislators that are thinking this might have a negative impact of securing these companies moving to Atlanta,” said Tom Smith, a professor of labor economics at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.
Richard Burgess, the treasurer of the Georgia Association of Business Brokers, agreed. “By all means they want the largest company in the world coming to their city. Heck, how many jobs will they create if Amazon were to come to Atlanta?” he said. “An enormous amount. I guess we all want that—and they’ll make amends and bends to make that happen.”
Amazon is a publicly LGBTQ-friendly company, and an award-winning one. This year, the company received full marks of 100 percent on the Human Rights Index’ Corporate Equality Index for its protections of and benefits for LGBTQ employees. (The average score for a Fortune 500 company was 70 percent; only 13 other companies, including Apple, Walgreen, Ford, and Verizon also got perfect 100s).
In October, Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, won the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) National Equality Award for his personal financial support of marriage equality; his company’s public support of pro-LGBTQ policy stances; and Amazon Studios’ production of the original television show, Transparent, which follows a transgender character and their family. “Bezos has personally been a tremendous leader not just in his rhetoric but in his actions,” said HRC Workplace Program Director, Deena Fidas.
So when looking for a home base for their second headquarters, it follows that Amazon would prioritize states and cities in which their LGBTQ employees will be at best welcomed with open arms, and at worst protected by law from discrimination. In their request for HQ2 proposals, the company hinted at that priority, outlining cultural community fit as one of the criteria a host city would have to meet.
Atlanta’s proposal itself has not been made public, but Governor Deal implied that the incentives are significant: “On the city side alone, we put forth more incentives than we’ve ever put forward in the history of the city,” he said.
That doesn’t mean Georgia would include an explicit commitment to deny passage of RFRA—but it would not be the first time an economic calculus has stalled anti-LGBTQ legislation in the state, nor the first time Georgia’s governor himself has stepped in to prevent it from passing. Since its introduction in 2014, the bill has been protested not only by human rights groups, LGBTQ advocates, and progressive religious organizations of both Christian and Jewish denominations, but by corporations. And, in turn, the bill has been voted down by politicians who care about keeping those businesses open. Most recently, in 2016, Governor Deal publicly vetoed a version passed by state legislators.
This winter, the Georgia GOP is trying again. 2018 offers a unique chance for them to push a scaled-down version of 2016’s RFRA bill through the legislature, because this January, Georgia’s government officials will reshuffle entirely: Every state representative and senator is up for reelection; half a dozen senators are running for statewide office; and the Lieutenant governor and the Secretary of State are both running for governor. To appeal to Republican primary voters, many of those GOP candidates have begun to profess religious liberty as a strong policy priority.
In August, the Georgia Republican Party weighed making support for religious liberty legislation a prerequisite for a gubernatorial run, but instead released a statement “urg[ing] that all Republican gubernatorial candidates support a state-level RFRA.” Four GOP candidates for governor—Michael Williams, Hunter Hill, Casey Cagle, and Brian Kemp—have signed a pledge to do so.
Meanwhile, Governor Deal’s top aide, Chris Riley, has publicly asked that gubernatorial candidates recognize that even just their rhetoric surrounding religious liberty legislation on the campaign trail could harm Atlanta’s efforts to woo Amazon headquarters there. “We will continue to work with those campaigns and ask them to remember when they speak those headlines go as quick and far as the CEO’s desk,” he said in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Conservative lawmakers condemned him and the governor for their willingness to compromise on values for a shot at business. “I won’t barter away my children’s birthright of religious freedom for 30 pieces of economic development silver,” said Brant Frost V, the chairman of the Coweta County GOP, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “[M]y goal is not to please big corporate in New York and L.A., but rather the people of Georgia,” said State Senator Michael Williams, according to CBS46.
Progressive lawmakers and advocacy organizations, on the other hand, are cautiously optimistic that despite GOP bluster, RFRA legislation will again be stalled, citing economic considerations as well as human rights ones. “I think we as a state of Georgia need to learn from the fact that [in 2016], major companies in the film and entertainment industry were swayed by their attempt to discriminate and came out saying they would relocate,” said Representative Park Cannon, an openly queer member of the Georgia’s House of Representatives. “I believe that is in the best interest of officials in the 2018 legislative session to put Georgians first—and by Georgians, I really mean all Georgians.”
In 2016, dozens of corporate leaders came out in opposition of the bill, from such stalwart Georgia companies as Coke, Home Depot, UPS, Marvel Studies, and Disney Studios who made statements to the effect of: If this passes, we bail. The NFL implied it would hurt Atlanta’s chances of hosting the Super Bowl, and that it would stop choosing the city to host championship games.
Other states with RFRA bills in the pipeline or in effect saw economic ramifications immediately: after Indiana passed RFRA under then-governor Mike Pence in 2015, the Women’s Conference, Gen Con, and even the Christian Church all relocated or cancelled their multi-million-dollar conventions. The NCAA warned North Carolina that if they passed RFRA in 2016, the state wouldn’t be eligible to host the championships until 2022—but pass it they did.
Back in Georgia, Deal’s hands were tied. “In 2016, the business community had a significant impact on his decision to [veto],“ said Dan Browning, a Georgia-based business consultant. “The governor was relatively clear about that” economic question being a motivating factor, agreed Jeff Graham, executive director of LGBTQ organization Georgia Equality. “But he also couched it in terms of his own values.”
So what’s different this year? The only thing stopping RFRA being signed into law in 2016 was Governor Deal: Soon, his presence as buffer will be gone, and if one of the five Republicans who signed the RFRA pledge replace him, a veto seems less likely.
Gubernatorial candidate Michael Williams is a small business owner himself, who says the idea that RFRA would discriminate against LGBTQ individuals is “completely unfounded and not true.” While he would not comment on whether it will be a legislative priority for either chamber, he said “if they were to pass it, I would sign it.”
So, too, is his Republican opponent Casey Cagle. “I think Amazon would want to put a headquarters in a location where people’s religious liberties and rights are protected,” he said in an emailed statement.
“Georgia is the number one state for business. I’ve been a leader on the team that built that reputation,” Cagle continued. “On religious freedom, I support language that mirrors the federal law; all businesses in the United States already operate under it.” In Indiana, the state-level RFRA language was broader and protected more businesses than the federal one, as was last year’s Georgia version. The new copy introduced by Senator Marty Harbin in February is shorter and less expansive.
Michael Ramatowski, the president of the Georgia Association of Business Brokers, says that while he cannot speak for all GABB’s members, many of whom are conservative small business owners, he thinks that to attract Amazon, Georgians in all political camps will be willing to make concessions. “If you’re looking at the 40-50,000 people Amazon would bring to the market center, even rural counties will see it as a way to get along as best we can get along instead of putting up barriers,” he said.
But just as Georgia has often put economics first, said Ramatowski, so will Amazon. “I think they put it all in a matrix: say economically we’re 30 percent there; on rights issues, we’re 8 or 10 or 15 percent there,” he said. “I suspect more often than not, the economic issues will outweigh.” He thinks it’s possible that Amazon would overlook a tenuous political future of discrimination in a state with other beneficial business amenities.
Amazon officials would not comment on the record as to whether or not they would weigh state-level religious freedom laws in their decision-making process, instead directing CityLab back to the selection criteria within the RFP. In it, a “cultural community fit” section indicates that Amazon wants the “presence and support of a diverse population.” In some cases, RFRA could erode the support and, in turn, the presence of LGBTQ city-dwellers—why move somewhere you’re not welcome?
Some other Amazon contender cities could also now confront this issue. Texas, for example, has also already adopted a RFRA provision, while Houston and Austin have been considered front runners. North Carolina is again trying to introduce a religious freedom law (and a bathroom bill), even as Charlotte bids for Amazon.
Even if Georgia doesn’t pass a state-level RFRA this year, or next, the state’s legislation already might fall short of fully supporting its diverse population. Georgia is one of three states, including Mississippi and Alabama, that have no comprehensive civil rights law; nothing to protect all its citizens from discrimination in the realms of employment, housing, and public accommodations. And in addition to RFRA, it is considering other legislation that LGBT rights groups consider discriminatory, including rewrite of the adoption code.
The city of Atlanta, however, more easily fills those requirements, with the most progressive policies of any Georgia municipality. Even amongst cities in blue states, Atlanta is competitive: In 2016, Atlanta scored a 104 out of 100 on the HRC’s Municipal Equality Index.
Outgoing mayor Kasim Reed, who has led the city since 2010 and will be replaced this winter, came out publicly against RFRA bills in their previous iterations. Besides codifying employment discrimination, which he condemned, the mayor said they would gravely impair “[Atlanta’s] ability to recruit major corporate headquarters, startups, small and medium-sized businesses.”
Atlanta’s economic development office would not comment on whether they had been in communication with the state about how Georgia’s upcoming RFRA vote could impact their bid.
Absent threatening not to come at all (and following through), there’s another way companies like Amazon could intervene politically: they could put down roots and push the culture to change around them. “If the issue is not in [Amazon’s] interest at this point, they would do their best to change that over time,” said Ramatowski of GABB. “They have enough horsepower to be able to do that.”
Nationwide, businesses are becoming increasingly engaged in their host cities’ political processes. ”Wherever these businesses operate, we tend to see what has become a really wide scale pattern of business leaders weighing in to buffer against proposed anti-LGBT bills,” said Fidas of HRC. “And also to speak up in favor of more inclusive state statutes on non-discrimination.”