Loeffler distances herself from her WNBA team’s ‘religious liberty’ opposition

Republican Kelly Loeffler is at once a "pro-wall and pro-Trump" U.S. senator in waiting and the co-owner of an Atlanta WNBA franchise that condemned a top priority of some conservative leaders.

The Atlanta Dream, which Loeffler helped purchase in 2011, was among dozens of businesses that opposed "religious liberty" legislation in 2016 before the start of that year's legislative session. 

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Loeffler said the team's position on issues should not be misconstrued with her own.

“I bought the Atlanta Dream because I love basketball. I wanted to do something for the city of Atlanta, for the Southeast, for sports. I did not buy the team for political purposes or political statements,” she said. “I believe that people of faith should be free to make statements without fear of persecution.”

Pressed on whether that meant she supported the legislation, she indicated that she did.

“I think people of faith should be protected,” she said. “And we should all be able to act according to our religious beliefs.”

She added: “And we should treat all people with love and respect.”

More: AJC Interview: Loeffler vows to fight ‘impeachment sham’ in Senate

The issue may not surface again in Congress. A version of the legislation passed by a bipartisan vote in 1993 and was shortly signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

But it has become a litmus test among conservatives in Georgia and a perennial tussle in the Georgia statehouse, even after then-Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the bill in 2016 amid threats of dire financial fallout.

On the campaign trail last year, Gov. Brian Kemp tried to take a more nuanced position on the proposal.

He said he would only sign a “mirror image” of the federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act that became law in 1993 – and nix any version that veered from the original.

"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 in an August 2018 campaign stop. "That's all I'm committing to do. Anything else, I'll veto it."

The debate is one of the starker divides in Georgia politics, and loomed large in last year's race for governor. Democrat Stacey Abrams declared the idea "divisive and discriminatory," while Kemp emphasized the bipartisan nature of the federal law.

Many of its supporters see it as a way to defend against what they view as a siege on Christian values and provide more legal protection to the faith-based. Some also view it as extra legal backing for those who oppose same-sex marriage.

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 companies who threatened boycotts if Georgia adopted the law.

“Kelly Loeffler hasn’t even taken office yet and already she’s threatening to turn back the clock on Georgians’ basic rights and do enormous damage to Georgia business all in one fell swoop,” said Alex Floyd of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

Still, the idea was so popular with the GOP's grass-roots base last year that Kemp and other leading contenders each quickly pledged 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.

Some recent polls show the broader electorate is not nearly as supportive of the idea. A 2017 AJC poll found that a plurality of voters opposed an effort to revive the legislation. And a coalition of state Democrats and corporate boosters remains staunchly against the proposal.