Kemp: I will veto any legislation that veers from federal ‘religious liberty’ law

Brian Kemp speaks during the Georgia Chamber of Commerce's  Congressional Luncheon. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Brian Kemp speaks during the Georgia Chamber of Commerce's Congressional Luncheon. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Republican Brian Kemp said he would veto any "religious liberty" legislation that veers from a federal version of the bill signed by President Bill Clinton if elected governor, the first time he's unequivocally said he would nix any proposal that includes additional provisions.

Speaking to a crowd of hundreds of hotel and hospitality industry officials at a Tuesday forum in Atlanta, Kemp said he would only sign a “mirror image” of the federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act that became law in 1993.

“It’s time to do that, put that behind us so we can move on. It’s the same bill Nathan Deal voted on when he was in Congress,” he said. “That’s all I’m committing to do. Anything else, I’ll veto it.”

The debate has become one of the starker divides in the Georgia race for governor, with Democrat Stacey Abrams declaring the idea is "divisive and discriminatory" every chance she gets. As Kemp tries to appeal to a broader electorate, he's emphasized the bipartisan nature of the federal law.

“That does not discriminate,” he told the crowd. “If you believe that discriminates, you need to talk to Congress.”

Abrams, who spoke to the Governor’s Tourism Conference shortly before Kemp, sharpened her opposition. She said no religious liberty bill “will ever become law in the state of Georgia” – including the measure Kemp has pledged to sign.

“No matter what you hear, there’s no necessity for this legislation in Georgia. And the notion that we can hearken back to 1993 ignores the very strong difference between then and now,” said Abrams.

“We’ve moved forward as a nation, we’ve become more inclusive,” she added. “And when you pass legislation that legalizes discrimination in any form, you signal that you’re closed for business.”

The group showered her with applause; many in the tourism industry opposed the “religious liberty” measure in part over fears it would lead to boycotts.

The debate over the legislation has become a perennial one in Georgia, even after Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a version of the bill in 2016. Many of its supporters see it as a noncontroversial way to defend against what they view as a siege on Christian values and provide more legal protection to the faith-based.

The opponents, including powerful business boosters and gay rights groups, say religious liberty bills amount to legalized discrimination, and they point to executives from dozens of big-name companies, including Apple, Disney and Time Warner, who threatened boycotts if Georgia adopted such legislation.

The proposal remains so popular with the GOP’s grass-roots base that Kemp and other leading contenders each quickly signed a pledge to sign such a measure if elected. Not doing so could have crippled their campaign; the only candidate to refuse the pledge, Clay Tippins, finished in fourth place.

But the stance could be more damaging to a broader electorate that will cast ballots in November. A 2017 AJC poll found that a plurality of voters opposed an effort to revive the legislation.