Cagle, other GOP hopefuls pledge to sign ‘religious liberty’ measure

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle speaks about his gubernatorial announcement on Thursday, April 27, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle speaks about his gubernatorial announcement on Thursday, April 27, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and his three Republican rivals signed a pledge that they would enact a “religious liberty” measure if they’re elected governor, taking a united stance on one of the most contentious debates in Georgia.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp and state Sens. Hunter Hill and Michael Williams had already signaled their support for the pledge. But Cagle's decision to sign it was a surprise given his changing stances on the measure.

It means that the leading GOP contenders to succeed Gov. Nathan Deal are all unequivocally opposed to his decision to veto the religious liberty measure in 2016 — and that all will push to advance the legislation if they’re elected.

The measure has riven Georgia lawmakers, and energized activists from both parties, for more than four years. 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.

Cagle enthusiastically supported it last year, warning that a "silent majority" opposed Deal's veto. But he took a different tack earlier this year as he prepared to run for higher office. He said it should be left to Congress, and not state legislators, and in his role as the top official in the state Senate he did not make it a priority during this year's legislative session.

Asked to elaborate on his stance, the lieutenant governor said in a statement that he will not “stand for discrimination against people of faith, or anyone of that matter.” Prodded on his policy shift, Cagle campaign manager Scott Binkley said he has “consistently supported protections for religious freedom.”

“He believes we need a uniform national standard from the federal government — and that may still come from Congress or from an upcoming Supreme Court decision,” Binkley said. “But in the meantime, Georgia can take action on the state level.”

The move seemed aimed at depriving Cagle’s three GOP adversaries — or any others considering joining the governor’s race — an opening to pummel him over an issue that’s wildly popular with the party’s conservative base.

The state’s GOP primary electorate tends to skew further to the right than the broader Republican vote, and activists routinely pass resolutions encouraging lawmakers to pass the measure.

It’s also a sign that Cagle is willing to alienate Deal and the state’s leading business boosters — who both disdain the measure — to try to shirk off the image that he’s part of the GOP establishment.

Democrats are likely to seize on the lockstep GOP position over religious liberty, particularly as they sharpen their pitch to moderate and independent voters. Several Republicans representing suburban districts have voted against the measures. And both Democrats running for governor — state Reps. Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans — staunchly oppose it.

Abrams said Friday that Deal’s veto of the legislation helped the state avert “economic collapse” that would have devastated Georgia’s thriving film industry, and she said Republicans were trying to “push discrimination under the guise of religion.”

The quick-forming decision to sign the pledge was particularly remarkable given the drawn-out effort in other quarters of the party to avoid any firm vow on religious liberty.

After weeks of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, the Georgia GOP’s state committee voted last Saturday to remove the pledge from a resolution. Opponents of the pledge said it could lead to legal challenges and open a “Pandora’s box” for candidates.

Days later, a conservative group called the Georgia Republican Assembly called the state party’s decision “unacceptable” and resurfaced the original version of the pledge. And within hours, all four GOP candidates signed it.