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Atlanta Businesses Again Lead Push Against Social Conservatives

Since the civil rights era of the 1960s, Atlanta civic leaders have touted the slogan, "The City Too Busy to Hate."

Their message: We're focused on creating jobs and wealth, not resisting desegregation.

Turns out, many businesses liked that attitude. Atlanta held on to its longtime giants, such as Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines, and become home to many more corporations, including UPS, Home Depot and Mercedes-Benz USA.

So on Monday, when Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal announced his plan to veto legislation denounced by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender groups, he wrote the latest chapter of a long-running narrative about hospitality.

Georgians are a "warm, friendly and loving people," he said at a press conference.

Deal had been under intense pressure from business leaders who opposed House Bill 757, which would have given religious organizations the right to deny jobs and services to LGBT people in Georgia. Under the legislation, such organizations could fire workers who were not in accord with their employer's "sincerely held religious belief."

Gay rights supporters warned that the measure would, in effect, legalize discrimination. The Republican governor said the bill was unnecessary.

"I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia, of which I and my family have been a part ... for all of our lives," he said.

William Pate, who heads the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he was relieved the governor reached this conclusion.

"I think his decision is really going to sustain Georgia's position as the No. 1 state in which to do business," Pate said.

The Faith and Freedom Coalition used robo-calls to urge Georgians to contact Deal's office and express support for the bill. Many conservatives said the bill was needed to protect religious beliefs.

But major corporations with operations in Georgia, including Apple, Disney, Time Warner, AT&T, Intel and Salesforce, called on Deal to veto the bill. The NFL even warned that Atlanta's bid for a Super Bowl could be jeopardized if the bill were to become law.

The corporate push was similar to the effort that shook up politics in Indiana last year when a similar measure was signed into law.

Last week, North Carolina lawmakers passed legislation to block local laws that protect LGBT people. On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union, Equality North Carolina and three individuals filed a federal lawsuit saying the law violates LGBT people's constitutional rights and federal law.

In Atlanta, the capital of Georgia, businesses have had a long history of shaping key decisions on racial and diversity issues.

One of the most famous examples came in 1964, when Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize and some white elites refused to attend an integrated dinner in his honor. That's when Coca-Cola threatened to leave the state if the boycott happened.

About 1,600 people ended up attending the sold-out event, where King addressed the crowd, saying: "This marvelous hometown welcome and honor will remain dear to me as long as the chords of memory shall lengthen."

But in this case, the business community's fight may not be over yet. Supporters of the bill were disappointed in the governor's decision, saying the bill is still necessary to protect people who want to follow their own religious beliefs.

State Sen. Josh McKoon criticized the governor for what he sees as bowing to business.

"If we're going to allow a handful of business executives largely from outside of our state to dictate public policy, I mean, I would argue we could do away with the kind of quaint elections that we have. We may as well auction off seats in the Legislature," McKoon said.

Some lawmakers are now calling for a special session to try to override the governor's veto.

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Marilyn Geewax is a contributor to NPR.
Elly Yu is a reporter at WABE, where she first got her start in public radio as angraduate student intern in 2013. Since then, she’s reported for WNYC, NPR’s Latino USA, and the New York Daily News among others.