‘Religious liberty’ rift in Georgia deepens

Gov. Nathan Deal warned in his first interview since he rejected Georgia’s controversial “religious liberty” legislation that he’s willing to pull out the veto pen again if a similar measure lands on his desk.

That could put Deal squarely at odds with a top potential contender to replace him, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who has doubled down on his support for the proposal. Cagle says such legislation is backed by a “silent majority” of Georgians.

The split illustrates anew the contrast between a two-term Republican incumbent who does not have to run for re-election and the political calculations of a likely contender in the 2018 governor’s race.

And it’s yet another in a string of reminders that Deal’s veto of the so-called “religious liberty” bill only gave Georgia a temporary reprieve from an issue that is now roiling other Southern states.

In an exclusive interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Deal said the uproar in North Carolina and Mississippi should give religious conservatives in Georgia second thoughts about pushing another version of legislation that would give broader legal protections to opponents of gay marriage.

And he said he was concerned another contentious debate over “religious liberty” legislation could damage Georgia’s reputation.

“I don’t want to go through the same process all over again. I’ve made my position very clear. I tried to write a very thoughtful veto message,” he said. “It expressed my concerns and it expressed my reasons for vetoing it. And those reasons won’t change in my mind.”

Deal, who legally can’t run for another term, vetoed the measure on March 28 amid a wave of criticism from corporate heavyweights and gay rights groups who threatened to boycott the state if it became law.

Cagle and other supporters have vowed to revive the measure next year, depicting it as necessary to provide an extra layer of legal protections for faith-based activities.

The lieutenant governor said in an earlier interview that he maintains a good relationship with Deal, and that they agree on far more issues than they disagree. But that doesn’t change his “belief in the fact that this needs to be addressed,” he said.

“This issue does not go away. There is still a tremendous amount of emails and correspondence that we’re receiving that is looking for action to be done on this,’ ” Cagle said. “I, for one, believe very strongly that we do need to ensure that this standard is put in place for the state of Georgia.”

Cagle’s far from alone in his stance. House Speaker David Ralston said after the legislative session that he and Cagle want to reach a consensus that would “focus on the substance of the bill rather than the rhetoric that’s out there.”

And some rank-and-file Republicans have gone a step further. State Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, wrote this week in the the Christian Index – the official publication of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board – that Deal “blatantly violated” the trust of Georgia voters by rejecting the measure, and called on lawmakers to reinstate it.

“Freedom is not free; it is costly and has come to us because of the great sacrifice of so many. Are we now willing to protect it for those who come behind us?” he wrote. “I want my children and my grandchildren to enjoy the same freedoms that I have had in my life – freedoms for which my father fought.”

Cagle has been the most outspoken about the measure among potential Republican gubernatorial candidates. That has strained his relations with the Metro Atlanta Chamber and other pro-business groups, but it has endeared him to religious conservatives.

He trumpeted his efforts to fight “radical atheist groups” in support of legislation aimed at the Georgia High School Association and its rules forbidding religious messages on athletic gear. And he’s promised to fight critics who argue the “religious liberty” measure amounts to legalized discrimination.

While that position could help Cagle in a potentially crowded GOP primary dominated by evangelicals, it could pose problems for him in a general election and cost him support of powerful business interests. For now, though, Cagle said any speculation on his future is premature.

“I have always, if you looked at my career, I’ve been an independent-minded individual. I believe very strongly in being a pro-business conservative,” he said. “I also believe very strongly in a person’s First Amendment right in the free exercise of religion. There has to be a delicate balance.”

Deal, who infuriated religious conservatives with his veto, told the AJC that he’s not going to weigh in on what next year’s “religious liberty” legislation should look like. But he urged supporters to carefully consider the fallout in other Southern states whose governors recently signed legislation seen by critics as an attack on gay and transgender rights.

Facing a growing corporate backlash, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory urged lawmakers to change part of a new law that he recently signed that prevents people from suing over employment discrimination in state court. But he stopped short of opposing another section that limited bathroom access for transgender people.

Deal said supporters of “religious liberty” legislation should take stock in the fallout in North Carolina, which includes a decision by PayPal to cancel its plans to build a global operations center in that would have created 400 new jobs.

“It’s time to take another deep breath. I see what’s happening in North Carolina. I see what’s happening in Mississippi,” Deal said. “And I would hope that many of the ones that are pushing for it would not want the state of Georgia to go through that kind of scenario.”

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