The ‘religious liberty’ fight in Georgia is making a comeback

The movement to pass contentious “religious liberty” legislation in Georgia is making a comeback after stalling in the final days of the legislative session.

But GOP leaders remain divided over what it should look like, and the debate is likely to spill over into election-year politicking in 2016.

The Georgia Republican Party’s delegates gave the legislation a ringing endorsement at its convention Saturday as part of a package of resolutions passed en masse and without discussion. The resolution pointedly did not, however, include an anti-discrimination clause sought by corporate heavyweights and some of the state’s top GOP officials.

The fight to reconcile the competing plans has created a sharp divide within the party over the legislation, which supporters see as a way to protect people from government interference but opponents cast as an excuse to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

Gov. Nathan Deal said in an interview he considered the anti-discrimination language essential, and powerful business leaders have warned that not doing so could harm Georgia’s image. Many opponents were quick to mention the uproar over similar bills in Arkansas and Indiana, which led to threats of boycotts and international criticism.

But the legislation’s biggest champions, including state Sen. Josh McKoon, said they see the clause as unnecessary and vague. Activists at 11 of 14 of the party’s district meetings endorsed language without it earlier this year. And the 2,000 or so delegates at Saturday’s convention approved the language after a closed-door fight over how far it should go.

“Delegates to the Republican convention understood that protecting First Amendment rights were important at the founding of our country, and they’re important now,” said state Rep. Sam Teasley, a Marietta Republican who sponsored the legislation.

The legislation, Senate Bill 129, would ban the government from infringing on someone’s religious beliefs unless it can show a compelling interest for doing so. It uses much of the same language as federal legislation that Congress passed in 1993 and carries President Bill Clinton’s signature. More than 2o states have passed some version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

For the delegates who gathered in Athens on Saturday, the endorsement was one of several rebukes to sitting Republican officials.

They backed another resolution supporting legislation that would make it harder for some immigrants who have received work permits to obtain driver’s licenses. That proposal stalled in the state Legislature amid concerns from corporate leaders that it could make it harder to attract overseas talent. And they called for the election of state Board of Education members who are now appointed by Deal.

House Speaker David Ralston, who helped bottle up the religious liberty bill, was greeted with a smattering of boos when he spoke to the crowd. And John Padgett, the party’s chair, narrowly beat back a challenger who called for more ideological purity in the party.