Brian Kemp, the Republican nominee to become Georgia’s next governor, is shown after voting in the July GOP runoff. Kemp said this past week that he would sign a “religious liberty” bill if it was a “mirror image” of the federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act. “That’s all I’m committing to do,” Kemp said. “Anything else, I’ll veto it.” Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Capitol Recap: Kemp sets his limit on ‘religious liberty’ for Georgia

Back during primary season, Brian Kemp — like most of the other major candidates in the GOP race for governor — pledged to sign “religious liberty” legislation if it got to his desk.

As vows go, it was a little vague. For instance, would he have signed legislation like House Bill 757 that Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed in 2016?

Apparently not.

Kemp said this past week that if legislators want his signature on a religious liberty bill, it will have to be a “mirror image” of the federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act that President Bill Clinton signed in 1993. The statute requires the government to prove a “compelling governmental interest” before it interferes with a person’s exercise of religion.

“That’s all I’m committing to do,” Kemp said. “Anything else, I’ll veto it.”

Religious liberty has been the source of perennial debate in the General Assembly, even after Deal vetoed HB 757 and drew the scorn of many Georgia Republicans. Third District Republicans even censured the governor.

Among other things, HB 757 would have allowed faith-based organizations to deny social, education or charitable services that violated their “sincerely held religious belief.” It also would have preserved the rights of such organizations to fire employees who don’t hold the same beliefs.

When Deal vetoed the bill, he said it didn’t reflect Georgia’s image as a state full of “warm, friendly and loving people.”

Many supporters of religious liberty legislation see the bills as a noncontroversial way to defend against what they view as a siege on Christian values while providing more legal protection to the faith-based organizations.

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 big-name companies, including Apple, Disney and Time Warner, who threatened boycotts if Georgia adopted such legislation.

Kemp says the federal bill “does not discriminate.”

His Democratic opponent in the governor’s race, Stacey Abrams, has called religious liberty bills “divisive and discriminatory.” Speaking this past week at the Governor’s Tourism Conference, Abrams said no such bill, including one like the one Kemp vowed to sign, “will ever become law in the state of Georgia.”

“No matter what you hear, there’s no necessity for this legislation in Georgia,” Abrams said. “And the notion that we can hearken back to 1993 ignores the very strong difference between then and now.”

LGBTQ support: Abrams’ stances are proving to be popular with Georgia's LGBTQ community.

Patrick Saunders of Project Q reported that LGBTQ supporters and their allies held a fundraiser that poured $140,000 into her war chest.

Saunders noted that Abrams has been a vocal supporter of the community’s equality efforts and “has embraced LGBTQ issues during her campaign” for governor.

“It’s a stark change from 2014,” Saunders wrote, “when statewide candidates Jason Carter (governor) and Michelle Nunn (U.S. Senate) held similar closed-door, big-ticket fundraisers with LGBTQ supporters but didn’t speak out strongly for LGBTQ equality.”

Saunders also noted that the Democratic nominee for attorney general, Charlie Bailey, drew cheers at the party’s convention late last month when he promised, if elected, that he would create a civil rights division. Bailey also pledged to push for the passage of a comprehensive statewide civil rights bill that includes protection in cases involving sexual orientation and gender identity.

“This is important because the days of Washington defending our rights are over,” Bailey said. “We have to be prepared to protect on a state level, and that’s why we need an AG who is dedicated to doing that.”

Seeking a conversation: Abrams spent some time this past week discussing her call for removal of the carving on Stone Mountain of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

During a Facebook interview with The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, Abrams was asked about this message she posted about a year ago on Twitter:

“(T)he visible image of Stone Mountain’s edifice remains a blight on our state and should be removed.”

Abrams said she stands by the tweet, which she posted following the violence in Charlottesville, Va., during a white supremacist rally and after President Donald Trump said there were good people on both sides of the conflict.

“In the wake of Charlottesville, as an African-American woman running for governor, I was not going to equivocate about whether I think that a state monument to the Confederacy that was put up, not post-Civil War but post-Reconstruction by the authors of the new KKK in Georgia – my belief is that the state should never fund monuments to domestic terrorism,” Abrams told interviewer Chuck Williams

“My fundamental belief,” she added, “is that we cannot celebrate those who celebrated the destruction and terrorism of communities of color – especially African-Americans and Jews — in the state of Georgia.”

The subject is a talk the state needs to hold, Abrams said.

“What I intend is to have an authentic conversation. Because here’s the thing: If I’m not willing to tell you where I stand, you don’t know where I’m going to lead you. And I cannot equivocate about something that I understand so deeply, personally. And that’s what I’m going to continue to do,” she said. “I will have this conversation with anyone.”

Kemp has also discussed how history should be told at Stone Mountain.

“I have the Condoleezza Rice theory,” he said. “I don’t believe we can run from our history. We need to embrace it and learn from it, and be a better state and a better country.”

Postal polling: While in Columbus, Abrams also offered an alternative for voters who may be worried about the security of their ballot: mail it in.

“I believe in trust but verify,” Abrams said during a town hall meeting. “So we have to use the paper ballots that come with absentee balloting if we want to make sure all our votes are going to get counted,” she said.

Abrams said her campaign and state legislators are working together with the goal of running the largest absentee ballot effort in Georgia’s history.

“If we’re waiting until Election Day,” she said, “we’re waiting too long.”

Pain spreads to the business sector: Georgia saw a new threat this past week in its efforts to provide relief to rural residents from a growing health crisis.

The most evident symptom of that crisis has been the state’s loss of rural hospitals, at least seven since 2010.

The state saw some success this past year in funding hospitals still operating in Georgia’s less-populated areas through dollar-for-dollar tax credits on up $60 million in donations to any of 50 rural hospitals. Supporters of the program had hoped the General Assembly would boost the cap to $100 million during the upcoming legislative session.

But then the U.S. Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Service proposed rule change that would limit or eliminate the federal tax break donors receive for giving to such state programs.

Bookending the loss of hospitals has been the shortage of doctors in rural Georgia. Sixty-four of the state’s 159 counties have no pediatrician; 79 have no obstetrician/gynecologist; and nine have no doctor at all.

The condition has now spread.

Andy Miller of Georgia Health News reports that Clay County will soon have more doctors than drugstores — one to none.

The Buy-Rite in Fort Gaines, about 180 miles southwest of Atlanta, just tacked up a “going out of business” sign.

Candidates, endorsements, etc.:

— Carolyn Bourdeaux, the Democrat running against U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville, in the 7th Congressional District, nabbed endorsements from U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn. Lewis has also backed Lucy McBath, the Democratic candidate challenging U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, R-Roswell, in the 6th Congressional District.

— Republican Attorney General Chris Carr announced a second batch of endorsements from law enforcement officials, bringing his total to 82 sheriffs and 28 district attorneys.

— The Georgia AFL-CIO has gotten involved in the race for state insurance commissioner, throwing its support behind Democratic nominee Janice Laws. Her Republican opponent is Jim Beck.

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