The fight over 'religious liberty' is returning to Congress

Georgia Republican leaders worried about a fourth year of fighting over a "religious liberty" measure say the issue should be up to Congress. Soon, federal lawmakers will get that chance.

U.S. Sens. Mike Lee and Ted Cruz plan to bring back a measure next year known as the First Amendment Defense Act that aims to strengthen legal protections for opponents of gay marriage. This time, though, they hope it will fare better with a Republican-controlled White House. President-elect Donald Trump vowed to sign the measure during his campaign.

“The prospects for protecting religious freedom are brighter now than they have been in a long time,”  Cruz told BuzzFeed News.

The revival of that measure also gives cover to Georgia leaders after three years of fraught debate over the measure.

Galvanized in part by the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex weddings, religious conservatives considered the proposal a top priority during this year's legislative session. House Bill 757 passed both Republican-controlled chambers within hours, with a promise to allow faith-based organizations to deny services to those who violate their “sincerely held religious belief.”

Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the measure weeks later, faced with boycott threats from big-name companies who warned it could sully the state's business-friendly image and gay rights groups that said the measure amounts to legalized discrimination.

Since that veto, he and other critics of the proposal have pointed to the uproar in North Carolina over legislation seen by critics as an attack on gay and transgender rights - and the subsequent defeat of the state's GOP governor - as a cautionary tale. He's also made clear he would scuttle similar legislation next year, even as state Sen. Josh McKoon and other supporters vow to revive the debate.

House Speaker David Ralston joined the chorus of skeptics this month when he said he thought it would be "healthy for the Congress to have a debate, and let’s see what they do."

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson has advocated doing just that, voicing concern about a patchwork of state-by-state policies that could conflict with one another.

"It’s a national issue. It ought to be a seamless policy," Isakson said in a March interview, adding: "The Constitution guarantees religious liberty under the First Amendment, so anything that passes to carry that out ought to be a federal statute and not a state statute.”

More of the AJC coverage of the 'religious liberty' debate

The 'religious liberty' veto could be a turning point for Georgia

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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.