Georgia faith leaders push big business for action on voter laws

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Deborah Wood, sitting on a camping chair, waits in line to cast a ballot at the Shorty Howell Park Activity Building in Duluth, Georgia, on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. - HYOSUB SHIN/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS

Georgia faith leaders and corporate executives met virtually on Tuesday in an effort to find common ground to fight a slew of election overhaul bills sweeping the nation, including the state's controversial SB 202, which was recently signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp.

The closed summit, which lasted about an hour and a half, was led by Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey and Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, presiding prelate of the Sixth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

"Today we pushed for corporate leaders to act collectively," said Jackson, who estimated about 25 people were on the call. "I won't know whether or not I'm satisfied until they consult with each other and get back with us. We hope that they come together and speak out against the legislation."

Jackson and other faith leaders did not immediately call for a boycott of companies they felt have not spoken out at all or forcefully enough against the legislation but he said he would be "surprised" if there weren't one soon. He declined to identify which companies might be targeted.

In addition to speaking out collectively against Georgia's law, the faith leaders are requesting the companies support litigation that would have the law ruled unconstitutional, lobby against similar legislation in other states, and support federal legislation they say would provide uniformity in voting laws across the country.

"It's not so much what they say, but what they do," Jackson added.

He said when Delta issued a strong statement against the bill, the Georgia House voted to strip Delta of a tax break on jet fuel, a move which later died in the Senate.

"If you speak out collectively, it's hard for legislators to seek retaliation," he said.

"It was really a come-to-Jesus meeting," said the Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant, pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Stonecrest.

"They have to decide what side they're on and we're requiring them to do it verbally."

The faith leaders have requested a response from the businesses by Friday before taking further action, which could include boycotts, Bryant said.

Proponents of the changes in state voting law say the new provisions make voting more secure without much impact on convenience. And they say the rules are similar to or more voter friendly than those in many other states.

After lukewarm comments about the bill and under increasing pressure by civil rights, voting rights and faith groups, CEOs of both Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines issued stronger statements in late March about Georgia's new voting restrictions, calling them "unacceptable."

Coke called Tuesday's conversation "productive" and said, "We believe the best way to make progress now is for everyone to come together to listen, respectfully share concerns and collaborate on a path forward. We remain open to productive conversations with advocacy groups and lawmakers who may have differing views."

A Delta spokesperson declined comment on Tuesday's gathering, but reiterated CEO Ed Bastian's past message to employees in which he criticized Georgia's changes.

But most other major companies based in Georgia have avoided public statements directly criticizing or praising the changes.

Some major companies that were invited to Tuesday's summit did not participate.

Among them was Home Depot, the largest public company based in Georgia.

A spokesperson for the retailer said in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that, "We have decided that the most appropriate approach for us to take is to make clear that we believe that all elections should be accessible, fair and secure and we support broad voter participation and to continue to work to ensure our associates, both in Georgia and across the country, have the information and resources to vote."

Executives with UPS, the second largest public company headquartered in Georgia, were "not able to attend the meeting due to a previous commitment with a customer outside of Georgia," according to the company.

Southern Company, the parent of Georgia Power, as well as Aflac and Cox Enterprises, the parent of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, did not provide comment on the meeting by deadline.

Retired UPS executive Teri Plummer McClure, said companies could have done more to fight the voting law changes.

McClure, who was the Georgia-based delivery giant's chief human resources officer and general counsel, said big business seemed "more concerned about being criticized by the Republican Party than just speaking up for what should be a fundamental principle around democracy and fairness in voting."

She was on a different call this past weekend among national business leaders discussing what to do in the wake of voting law changes being contemplated around the country.

Companies "need to be much more aggressive in speaking up" as the issue comes up in other states, she said. "Every company is going to have to make the decision on their own about sticking their neck out on this issue."

Among those on Tuesday's call was the Rev. Lee May, pastor of Transforming Faith Church in Decatur and former CEO of DeKalb County.

"We can't do anything about what happened in the past, but we can determine what the future looks like." He said the pastors plan to meet again on Friday to lay out the next steps.

"What that looks like, we're working on it. You're either for us or against us. There will be consequences to inaction."

There has been some fallout already.

Major League Baseball, in a strong rebuke of the new law, pulled its All-Star Game out of Georgia.

And at least one major film project, "Emancipation," starring Will Smith and directed by Antoine Fuqua, is looking for a new location in protest of SB 202.