A strong hint: In 2016, Nathan Deal could take control of the 'religious liberty' conversation

On the day after the General Assembly left town, on Friday's GPB’s “Political Rewind,” state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, pretty much said what all suspected: The fight over religious liberty legislation isn’t over, and that it could become a prime topic of conversation at the state GOP convention in May.

Grassroots supporters of the legislation are already rumbling about offering a resolution at next month's state Republican primary in Athens, to make sure it remains a GOP priority, ready for renewed debate in next year's Legislature.

“We’re going to spend some time going around to Republican party activists around the state. I think that they want to see a lot of agenda items taken up, and I think this is certainly one of them.”

But on the same program was Brian Robinson, spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal.

For the last two sessions, the issue has bubbled up from the bottom, driven by individual lawmakers – McKoon in the Senate, and state Rep. Sam Teasley, R-Marietta, in the House. The result has been legislation strongly opposed by the LGBT community, and by Georgia’s corporate giants.

That may not happen a third time. Next year, with a highly competitive Republican presidential primary in the offing, Robinson strongly hinted that Deal intends to take control of the conversation. Said the governor’s spokesman:

“The governor’s feeling is that people of faith should have protection. They should not be fired or sued because of holding to their religious convictions. But he also doesn’t want to see a message sent out to the rest of the country that Georgia tolerates discrimination against its citizens or against citizens of this state.

“We are an international state now. And the governor can’t approach this the way a legislator who represents one district might. He’s got to step back and look at the entire context of this. How will his state be perceived if this is signed into law.

“Regardless of the merits or demerits of this legislation, it was being viewed nationally through a certain prism. And if we went ahead at this moment with it, it could have hurt us economically – right now. It is a brand issue.

“We have all of these Hollywood productions being filmed here. …We see it every day. They bring serious money to the state. That’s just one example. Even Lake Lanier Island has a rowing competition that was threatened….

“The governor wants to see a bill passed that mirrors what he voted for before. [That was the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed when Deal was in Congress.] He wants people of faith to have protections, but he doesn’t want the state seen as a place that tolerates discrimination – because it doesn’t.

“It is a fine needle to thread, and the governor will get it threaded…. When it comes back, and it’s cooled down, we’re going to get it done. We’re going to perfect the legislation.”

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Friday was the deadline for submitting amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court ahead of its gay marriage arguments, and 57 Republicans in Congress were among those asking the Court to uphold state-based bans.

Interestingly, the list of signatories includes just two of Georgia's 12 Republicans: U.S. Reps. Rick Allen of Evans and Jody Hice of Monroe.

Last month, more than 200 Democrats urged the Court to legalize gay marriage across the country, including Georgia Reps. Hank Johnson of Lithonia and John Lewis of Atlanta.

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Two of Atlanta's most bitter political opponents took their rivalries to Chicago over the weekend to lend their support to warring mayoral candidates.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed stumped for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is locked in a heated runoff with Cook County Commissioner Jesús "Chuy" Garcia. From the ATL mayor's Twitter account:

The mayors of Atlanta and Chicago share at least one characteristic. Both have combative reputations. From the Chicago Sun-Times:

In Washington Park, at get out-the-vote rally, Emanuel was joined by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

“This guy has a heart for people,” Reed told the crowd. “Does he convey it as a warmly as I believe he should? He probably doesn’t. He probably won’t win the warm conveyance process. But who do you want?

You want somebody warm or fuzzy, or you want somebody that can get it done?”

State Sen. Vincent Fort, a frequent Reed critic, traveled to Chicago after the legislative session's final day to campaign for Garcia, the underdog in the race. He also hinted at replicating Chicago's "insurgent people's movement" in Atlanta, where the race to replace Reed is already taking shape. From Fort's Twitter account:

Garcia, in particular, needs all the help he can get. Most polls show Emanuel with a hefty lead, and campaign has used its fundraising advantage to pummel Garcia with negative advertisements ahead of the Tuesday vote.

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Matt Viser of the Boston Globe focuses on Manchester, Ga., rather than Manchester, N.H., in a look at next year’s SEC primary:

But in an attempt to flex more muscle in the Republican nominating contest, and potentially boost a candidate with solidly conservative credentials, a half-dozen of the reddest of Southern red states are aiming to band together and hold a Southern Super Tuesday on the earliest possible date. Under the emerging 2016 primary calendar, places like Manchester, Ga., could carry new sway — in some ways acting as an antidote to the famously independent voters up north.

“When you look at where the heartland of the Republican Party is right now, it’s a lot of these Southern states,” said Joel McElhannon, a GOP consultant in Georgia.

The candidates “are going to have to speak to what the base of the party is wanting to hear . . . There’s not going to be much taste for someone interested in getting squishy and moderate.”

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A fight has erupted in the Jewish community over the Jewish National Fund's decision to award the Rev. Charles Stanley with an award.

The Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity penned a letter urging the JNF to reconsider its decision to award Stanley, a former president of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention and longtime pastor of First Baptist Church of Atlanta, its Tree of Life Award.

From the letter:

Dr. Stanley has a sordid history of virulent homophobic statements and actions. He has publicly called AIDS God’s punishment for America’s acceptance of homosexuality and called homosexuality “destructive behavior.” He has incorrectly claimed that being gay is a choice and stated that “medical research has proven, absolutely unquestionably, that the person can be free from homosexuality if they want to.” He has said that “God does not agree with the lifestyle of the homosexual” and that accepting gay people is “an act of disobedience to God.” And at one time, acting on his convictions, Dr. Stanley hired armed guards on horseback to roam the streets in order to keep gay pride marchers away from his church and distant from his congregants.

The JNF said it would stand by its statement. Spokesman Adam Brill said Stanley has "always supported the Jewish people in times of peace and conflict" and noted that hundreds of his congregants traveled to Israel last summer in the heat of the conflict with Gaza.

Said Brill:

"One of the core tenants of our wonderful democracy is the Bill of Rights which grants Americans the ability to freely speak, worship and assemble as they choose. Jewish National Fund embraces those sacred rights and labors to ensure that everything we do is for the purpose of giving all generations of Jews a unique voice in building a prosperous future for the land of Israel and its people."

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The Washington Post reports that Atlanta's Southern Company has quietly cut ties with a controversial climate science researcher whom the New York Times reported in February did not disclose fossil fuel-tied funding for his climate science skepticism.

From the Post's story about climate change and the conservative legislative group ALEC:

In a separate example that echoes ALEC’s plight, Southern Co., the country’s fourth-largest electric utility, recently decided to quietly drop its funding for controversial scientist Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon, a solar physicist at the the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory who has challenged the consensus view that links recent climate change to man-made greenhouse gases. Some of Soon’s research came under question following revelations that he did not disclose that this work was paid for by fossil-fuel interests, including Southern, which operates coal-fired utility plants.

The company had been underwriting Soon’s research through a grant to the Smithsonian-affiliated laboratory where the scientists works, but the company has decided to end the relationship later this year, a spokesman confirmed. Soon declined a request to comment.

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U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, has lately taken to Twitter to offer his recollections of big moments in civil rights history. On Saturday he looked back on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder.

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Keep your eye on this issue. It could be the kind of event that changes minds. From the Chattanooga Times Free Press:

Hutcheson Medical Center officials promised last week to pay Walker County, Ga., millions, eventually. But legal experts say that promise is worth less than the paper on which it is printed.

With almost 800 creditors waiting for about $80 million from Hutcheson, the bankrupt hospital's governing body issued a promissory note on March 25 pledging $4.6 million to Walker County...

Floating in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Hutcheson cannot promise to make a new payment like this one. But Bobby Guy, former co-chairman of the American Bankruptcy Institute's Healthcare Committee, said the note is legal because it's not coming from the hospital; it's coming from the Hospital Authority of Walker, Catoosa and Dade Counties.

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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