How “Religious Freedom” Laws Became a Flash Point in the Georgia Governor’s Race

Oct 31, 2018

By Charles Bethea

John Latenser is a location manager: when a director needs to shoot scenes with a particular backdrop, he’ll find some options, sign agreements with property owners, figure out safety measures and what to do if it rains. Latenser has worked on “Black Panther,” “Transformers,” “Deep Impact,” and other projects, going back decades. A few years ago, he moved from Washington, D.C., to Georgia, which was on its way to becoming “the Hollywood of the South.” The industry has reportedly created nearly a hundred thousand jobs in the state and generated an estimated $2.7 billion in direct spending in Georgia during the last fiscal year. Georgia is home to a major international airport and a variety of filmable landscapes—mountains, beaches, a big city, countryside—but what really made it a top filming location are the tax credits. Since 2008, production companies working in Georgia have earned credits equaling thirty per cent of most of their expenses simply by flashing the state’s peach logo at the end of movies and TV shows.

But, in January, Latenser told me recently, many of his colleagues began to get anxious. “There was a weird lull in production here at the beginning of the year,” he said. “No one could quite put their finger on it. We didn’t know what was going on. It seemed logical that people were waiting to see what happened politically.” Tom Pierce, a colleague who works in location management, told me the same. “One of the rumors was that they were kind of waiting to see how it would settle out with the governor’s race,” he said.

It was just a rumor, as far as they know, but there was a logic behind it: four of the Republicans running for governor, including the party’s eventual nominee, Brian Kemp, had promised to sign a Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law if they were elected. There are versions of RFRA legislation in some twenty states; these laws often aim to protect businesses and individuals who wish to deny services to gay couples on the basis of religious belief. Georgia passed RFRA legislation in 2016—but, before it had been signed into law, Disney, Netflix, CBS, M-G-M, Steven Spielberg, and others in the film industry publicly condemned it, and many threatened to take their projects elsewhere. Ultimately, the state’s Republican governor, Nathan Deal, vetoed the legislation, defying the more conservative members of his party. “I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community,” he said at the time. (Deal, having served the state’s limit of two consecutive terms, will step down in January.)

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