Georgia GOP nixes ‘religious liberty’ litmus test for candidates

Supporters of the “religious liberty” measure at the Georgia statehouse. AJC file photo.

Supporters of the “religious liberty” measure at the Georgia statehouse. AJC file photo.

The Georgia GOP decided against imposing a litmus test on “religious liberty” legislation for the Republican candidates for governor, adopting a resolution Saturday that supported the controversial measure without including a pledge for gubernatorial contenders to back it.

The compromise came after bitter debate at the Georgia GOP’s state committee over a proposal that initially called for the candidates to pledge their support for a state version of the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act that seemed to take aim at Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.

The activists instead overwhelmingly backed a resolution pushing candidates to “commit to advancing the cause of religious liberty” without prodding them to sign a pledge.

It came after a remarkable agreement over the language between Georgia GOP chair John Watson, a favorite of the party’s establishment wing who was elected to lead the fractious party in June, and Mike Crane, a former state senator who is about as anti-establishment as they come.

It was also a relief for Cagle, the presumptive front-runner who has a complicated history with the religious liberty debate. He enthusiastically supported the measure last year and was critical of Gov. Nathan Deal's veto, but this year he said it should be left up to Congress.

His three GOP rivals – Secretary of State Brian Kemp and state Sens. Hunter Hill and Michael Williams – have each supported the legislation. To reinforce the point, Hill also issued a statement late Thursday saying he would “be the first candidate to sign my name” if the pledge had passed.

Supporters of the religious liberty legislation typically want Georgia to join the 21 other states that have similar laws they say will protect people of faith from government intrusion, as well as strengthen legal protections for opponents of gay marriage.

The opponents, including powerful business boosters and gay rights groups, warn it amounts to legalized discrimination and point to executives from dozens of big-name companies, including Apple, Disney and Time Warner, who threatened boycotts if Georgia adopted the legislation.

The grass-roots activists who make up the Georgia GOP's core have long embraced the legislation, and members passed resolutions supporting the legislation the last two years – and sharply criticized Deal for his 2016 veto of the bill. But many on the committee – 200 or so of the party's most committed volunteers and officials – drew the line at a pledge.

Randy Evans, a longtime Republican National Committeeman now in line for an ambassadorship, warned that "issue-based pledges" could lead to a wave of litigation and warned activists that supporting it could force the party to "dump money into lawyers' pockets."

And Watson said while he was a “passionate” supporter of the religious liberty legislation, he would staunchly oppose any requirement that a candidate support it “because of the Pandora’s Box it could open.”

Supporters of the pledge, including some of the party’s most conservative activists, warned that nixing the language would send the wrong message to elected officials who they say often ignores their top priorities. Brant Frost V said it would signal that “those politicians in Atlanta who take our money and then two-time us” can keep doing so.

“We know what’s going to happen,” he said, predicting that in 2019 the Metro Atlanta Chamber “is going to come in with their moneybags” and dissuade any candidate who hasn’t signed a pledge to oppose the measure.

Others say that the divisive debate could soon be a moot point either way: The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear a case later this year that could decide whether these types of measures are constitutional.

After the vote, Watson thanked the feuding activists for setting aside their differences and finding a middle ground.

“What I just saw was a healing process that was very important,” he said. “We’re not always going to agree on things, but I do want to express my sincere gratitude for working together on this.”