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​Georgia's "religious liberty law" stirs backlash from business

Last Updated Mar 16, 2016 12:32 PM EDT

While Georgia is known for peaches and pecans, some business leaders are warning that the state may become better known for a controversial bill that would allow discrimination against gay people.

The bill, which has passed Georgia's House and Senate, would prohibit "any adverse action" against organizations or people with "a sincerely held religious believe regarding lawful marriage between ... a man and a woman. Billed by supporters as a "religious freedom" law, the legislation has drawn concern from a number of businesses that say it will hurt the state and make it less competitive on several fronts.

One such business is telecommunications firm 373K, which was founded by engineer and developer Kelvin Williams. His company is planning to move to another state -- possibly Delaware or Nevada -- because of the bill, which he worries would make it more difficult to recruit workers.

"For the past year we've been building a global carrier network. We have to start hiring more," Williams said. "I can't always find the perfect person in Georgia. I might have to reach out across the world. Would I want to move to Georgia if someone else offered me a job after this? The answer was no."

Williams, who is gay, said that his staff voted in support of the decision to move the company's headquarters, although employees who want to stay in Georgia may do so. After sending a tweet about his company's decision to uproot itself from the Atlanta area, he said numerous other cities and states reached out to his company. The governor of Delaware personally called Williams to invite the company there, he said.

Large corporations ranging from Microsoft to Atlanta-based Coca-Cola are urging the state to abandon the bill, while Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff is speaking out against the proposed law and how it might impact his company's investment in the state. Benioff, by the way, has experience in fighting against "religious freedom" bills, given that he was an outspoken critic of Indiana's similar legislation, which was passed last year.

"We're looking squarely at what's going on in Georgia with House Bill 757, which means that we may have to reduce our investments in the state of Georgia," Benioff said on a conference call with financial analysts last month.

There's evidence to back up opponents' claims that such legislation can harm a state's business climate. Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act resulted in a loss of as many as a dozen conventions and as much as $60 million in lost revenue, according to tourism group Visit Indy.

The rise of legislation that permits business owners to refuse service based on their religious beliefs stems from a national push for gay and transgender rights, including the Supreme Court's ruling last year that legalized same-sex marriage.

Georgia isn't the only state where lawmakers are currently mulling laws that would allow businesses to refuse service to gay customers. Kentucky's Senate this week approved a similar bill that would allow business owners to refuse service to gay customers based on their religious beliefs. Last year, more than 100 anti-LGBT bills were filed in 29 states, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

In Georgia, 373K's Williams says the bill caused him to reconsider where his business taxes are going.

"How am I going to pay corporate income taxes to a state that supports hate? Williams said. "Other places have passed laws against discrimination. We're passing a discrimination law, and something is wrong."

It's unclear what will happen with the Georgia bill, given that Governor Nathan Deal has said he would reject any legislation that "allows discrimination in our state in order to protect people of faith." Deal's office didn't return a request for comment.

In the meantime, Williams said his plans to move his company out of the state are on track.

"The plan is by the end of the summer to be gone," he said. "It's just the fact that it passed the Senate was enough in my eyes to taint the image of Georgia and to make it more difficult to recruit people from different walks of life."