A ‘religious liberty’ rift sharpens in Georgia gov race

Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams are on opposite ends of a dizzying array of issues, but one of the standout contrasts is over the "religious liberty" debate. And both candidates made clear this week it will be a central part of the November race for governor.

Kemp reaffirmed his pledge Thursday to sign the legislation, calling it the "commonsense thing to do" and downplayed concerns that it could taint the state's pro-business reputation. Abrams doubled down on her opposition at a campaign stop Friday, saying it was akin to "legalizing discrimination in Georgia."

“Unfortunately, we need protection against divisive rhetoric and horrible legislation like the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act that would restore and legalize discrimination in the state of Georgia,” she said. “We know that has a chilling effect on business and a chilling effect on the economy.”

The legislation has been one of the most polarizing debates in Georgia for years, dividing politicians on a level deeper than party lines. It pits mainstream Republicans against their more conservative cousins, suburban and urban legislators against rural ones.

Supporters say it would protect people of faith from government intrusion, as well as strengthen legal protections for opponents of gay marriage. Opponents warn it would amount to legalized discrimination, and they point to big-name companies who threatened boycotts if it becomes law.

When Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a version in 2016, he was branded a traitor by some grass-roots conservative groups. His top aide, Chris Riley, warned in the runup to this year's legislative session that reigniting the debate would jeopardize the state's hunt for Amazon's second headquarters.

No such legislation emerged this year, but the issue has had tremendous staying power among conservatives who consider it a top priority for next year's political agenda. Kemp signed a pledge to enact a version of the legislation if he's elected, and said Friday he's sticking with it.

“My position on RFRA is not going to change. I’m not going to change,” he said, using the shorthand for the legislation.

“It’s the same thing that Gov. Deal voted for in Congress. It’s the commonsense thing to do, and I will do that as governor. And I’ll be glad to sit down with any business entity in the state and talk them through that.”

For Abrams, the rift might also be an opening to appeal to a business community that's on edge after the divisive GOP runoff that ended Tuesday.

Many of Georgia's establishment interests backed Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle's campaign, even if they felt betrayed by his pledge to sign the "religious liberty" bill and his high-profile role in masterminding the defeat of a tax incentive for Delta Air Lines.

After Cagle's overwhelming defeat, some of those donors are suddenly up for grabs. And on Friday, Abrams sent an unmistakable message inviting their support.

“I welcome the attention that says to everyone that Georgia is open for business, that we’re an inclusive state where diversity is a strength and not a weapon, and where we are going to fight for all Georgians and not a select few.”


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Republican leaders unleashed one scathing attack after another at Thursday's "unity rally," branding Abrams as a "liberal extremist," painting her as a creature of out-of-state interests and warning she could take Georgia down a "path to socialism."

And Abrams is not ready to directly engage – at least not yet. Just as she did at a campaign stop in coastal Georgia on Thursday, she steered clear of a hitting Kemp right back.

When asked Friday about how she planned to counter the line of attack, she emphasized her roots in the community.

Said Abrams:

"I'm Mississippi-raised and Georgia-grown. I'm a daughter of the Deep South who has started small businesses and has done a pretty good job with helping grow the economy in a small way. I'm a Democratic leader who has worked across the aisle ... And I believe that if you look at any objective metric, I'm the most qualified candidate for governor."  


Her event, held outside the Bread and Butterfly restaurant in Atlanta's Inman Park neighborhood, was also meant to emphasize her support from Georgia's film tax credit.

It’s also one of the few areas where the two candidates are on the same page.

While Cagle ruffled feathers by criticizing a prominent director who has made high-dollar films in Atlanta, Kemp has spoken glowingly of the program's impact.

He calls for an extensive review of all state incentives – except for the film program, which he said has already been thoroughly vetted.

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