Georgia has become a favorite destination for movies and shows looking for generous tax incentives, top-of-the-line sound stages, and veteran crews. “The Hunger Games,” “The Walking Dead,” “Black Panther,” and “Stranger Things” are just a few of the big-budget productions that have decamped for the Peach State in recent years. All that activity has paid off, with studies estimating that the film industry provided $9.5 billion in economic activity in the state during 2017.
But a new Georgia Senate bill that would make it legal for taxpayer-funded adoption agencies and foster care providers to choose not to work with same-sex couples is putting a strain on those ties. Opponents of the legislation believe it is bigoted, while its backers and supporters say that it is a matter of religious freedom.
Studios are declining to comment, but actors, producers, and showrunners are slamming the legislation and urging companies to pull productions from Georgia, if the bill passes the Georgia House of Representatives and gets signed into law.
Ben Wexler, a writer and producer on “The Grinder” and “Arrested Development,” took to Twitter to vent his outrage, writing, “To my fellow showrunners: if this dumb bill becomes law, let’s be done filming television shows in Georgia.”
His tweet was liked by 64,000 people and shared by 17,000. His remarks were retweeted by Dustin Lance Black and Billy Eichner. Activist groups have also sounded the alarm. Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, labeled the bill “a dangerous step backward.”
“This bill is not about freedom of religion, which is one of our nation’s fundamental values, but rather about imposing one’s personal religious beliefs on others to discriminate against loving foster or adoptive parents, simply because of their identity, and deny services to LGBTQ youth,” Ellis said.
Alyssa Milano, the star of Netflix’s “Insatiable,” which is currently shooting in Atlanta, expressed optimism that the entertainment industry would band together if the bill gains traction.
“If it does pass in the House of Representatives and if the Governor signs the bill, I think the film and entertainment industry will take a strong stand and will pack up and leave the state of Georgia,” said Milano. “There is just no tolerance for discrimination of any kind.”
In an interview with Variety, the bill’s author, Republican Sen. William Ligon, argued that the legislation isn’t intended to discriminate against gay couples. He said that it will expand the number of organizations who can find homes for foster children.
“What we’ve seen is the children are being failed by the state because some of these organizations are being forced to choose in some places between violating the tenants of their faith and going out of business,” Ligon said. “It’s hard to violate the thing that motivates you to do this service.”
Ligon argued that critics of the legislation are distorting its intentions.
“What [critics] fail to recognize is there’s a genuine need for children in difficult circumstances to find a permanent home,” he said. “This bill does not say that a gay couple cannot adopt a child or a gay agency cannot contract with the state. Those door’s open and available to many children in foster homes.”
The Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the Metro Atlanta Chamber, and corporations with local ties such as Coca-Cola and Delta have been lobbying the Georgia government to kill the bill, arguing that the legislation will discourage companies from doing business in the state.
“Legislation that sanctions discrimination and limits options for children in need of a permanent home takes us further away from our goal of attracting investments that improve the lives of Georgia families,” said Katie Kirkpatrick, chief policy officer at Metro Atlanta Chamber. “We accomplish that goal by focusing on issues that improve workforce development, education and transportation.”
Publicly, Hollywood studios have stayed silent, with many believing that speaking out could backfire and galvanize social conservatives in Georgia. Moreover, studio sources tell Variety they are hopeful that the legislation will not become law, avoiding a potential crisis. They may be right.
“It’s probably more popular in the state senate than the state house,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. “And it’s not popular with the governor, so the governor could veto it also.”
Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, has not signaled opposition to the bill. But Deal last year vetoed a controversial religious-liberties bill in the face of boycott threats.
Deal has also aggressively cultivated film and TV production in the state, and could see much of his work to that end undone if a bill were to pass.
“I think for this governor, he would view anything which made the state less attractive for that industry as being a step back on what he’s achieved,” Bullock said.
And although a two-thirds majority vote from the state senate could override Deal’s veto, a quirk of Georgia law gives Deal ultimate power over the bill’s fate. According to the state constitution, Deal can wait until after the legislative session ends to issue his veto, denying the Senate an opportunity to override.
Even as they declined comment, Hollywood studios referred Variety to the Motion Picture Association of America. The industry trade organization is running point on the adoption controversy for the companies and expressed confidence that Ligon’s bill will never become law.
“As we saw in the legislature last year, we are confident that Georgia will not enact any kind of legislation that would permit discrimination against any individual,” said Vans Stevenson, MPAA senior vice president of state government affairs.
Updated: 12:00 EST 02/28/18.