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Will Religious Liberty Thwart Atlanta's Super Bowl?

23 Mar, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Shooting oneself in the foot is not a term that is analogous to football, but Georgia’s state legislators are doing it – at least by NFL standards.

According to an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, just prior to passing House Bill 757, the controversial “religious liberty” bill (allowing non-profit faith-based groups with ‘deeply held religious beliefs’ to opt out of marrying, employing and providing services to gay people), legislators passed a measure designed to help bring the Super Bowl to Atlanta. The granting of a $10 million sales tax exemption to fans buying tickets to the game is a tax break NFL officials have noted to be mandatory in securing one of the world’s most lucrative sporting events.

Trouble is, the NFL may be unable to overlook House Bill 757, no matter how lucrative for football the state appears to be. Last Friday, the NFL released a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that said any form of discrimination is inconsistent with its business practices and could affect the awarding of the Super Bowl.

And that leaves Gov. Nathan Deal, who has until May 3 to make a decision, weighing the possibility of the Super Bowl against House Bill 757.

The NFL’s statement leaves no room for doubt.

“NFL policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote in the statement. “Whether the laws and regulations of a state and local community are consistent with these policies would be one of many factors NFL owners may use to evaluate potential Super Bowl host sites.”

The NFL issued a nearly identical statement in 2014, after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer considered a law that would have allowed businesses to refuse service to gay people due to religious objections. But at that point, the game was scheduled for Glendale in 2015, and the NFL said it was merely monitoring the situation.

However, the league did yank the 1993 Super Bowl away from Tempe after Arizona lawmakers failed to create a holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. Arizona was then awarded the 1996 game after creating the holiday.

The potential loss of an event estimated to generate $400 million in economic activity adds to the mounting pressure on Deal, as he decides whether to sign the legislation. The sports industry, as well as business, civic and community leaders have condemned the legislation.

Falcons’ owner Arthur Blank said that the bill would have “long-lasting negative impacts on our state and the people of Georgia.” Blank’s $1.4 billion downtown stadium is being partially funded with local tax dollars. The NFL has routinely rewarded communities with new stadiums by delivering to them a Super Bowl.

Unless, of course, the NFL sees a contradiction to its policies in the potential host city. And the city’s professional sports teams have been quick to criticize the bill.

“I strongly believe a diverse, inclusive and welcoming Georgia is critical to our citizens and the millions of visitors coming to enjoy all that our great state has to offer,” Blank said.

The Braves issued a statement saying the bill is “detrimental to our community and bad for Georgia,” and said it would “have a profoundly negative impact on our organization.” The Hawks’ statement references the city’s history during the civil rights movement.

“For generations, Atlanta has stood at the forefront of civil rights and its diversity is what has made this city a cultural leader in the Southeast,” the statement says. “The Hawks strongly believe in the values of inclusion, diversity and equal rights, core principles by which we operate our business and are essential elements in making Atlanta a leading global city.”

Deal made his first comments on the bill Friday. He said that he’ll use the full amount of time between now and May 3 to consider the bill.

“I’ve heard from both sides, and I’m sure I will continue to hear from both sides on the issue,” Deal said. “I’ll take their opinions into consideration.”

He may, like Indiana Governor Mike Pence, rethink the issue following the backlash that occurred after the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that had NCAA, as well as others, threatening to pull their business from the state last year.

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