A new ‘religious liberty’ debate in Georgia takes aim at Cagle

The state’s leading Republican activists are considering imposing a litmus test on “religious liberty” legislation for the GOP candidates for governor, sparking a new debate over the contentious proposal that has long divided the party’s grass-roots activists and elected officials.

The fight centers on a resolution up for debate at Saturday’s meeting of the Georgia GOP state committee that calls for gubernatorial candidates to pledge their support for a state version of the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act if they’re elected.

The move seems aimed at Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the presumptive front-runner of the four Republican candidates in the race. He was an outspoken supporter of the legislation in 2016, but he said this year that it should be up to federal lawmakers to decide the issue.

The state party passed resolutions endorsing the religious liberty measure in 2015 and 2016, and party activists even panned Gov. Nathan Deal last year for his veto of the bill. But pushing candidates to sign a pledge to back the controversial measure goes too far for some Republicans.

They maintain that the Georgia GOP shouldn’t be in the business of trying to force a pledge on a candidate, and they say that the divisive debate could soon be a moot point: The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear a case later this year that could decide whether these types of measures are constitutional.

“While I do support a RFRA and I do support the state party issuing resolutions identifying its positions, I do not support the party issuing some sort of mandate that candidates sign a pledge,” said Joseph Brannan, the chairman of the 2nd GOP District.

The supporters of the pledge are holding firm. Alex Johnson, a DeKalb County attorney who has three times run for party chairman, said the effort to remove the pledge wreaks of backroom shenanigans.

“We believe, at core, that politicians should keep their promises to voters,” he said. “And these efforts to remove the ‘pledge’ language make it seem that those in the paid political industry believe that politicians shouldn’t be required to even make promises to be accountable to.”

The state party was supposed to put the finishing touches on the resolutions at its June convention, but lengthy delays meant there was no quorum when it came time to vote. That means the state committee members — there are more than 200 of them, including ex-officio members — will have the final say.

The religious liberty legislation has morphed over time, but supporters 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. It has long enjoyed enormous support among grass-roots GOP conservatives.

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 and called on Deal to veto the bill.

As the head of the Senate, the fight over religious liberty has been a vexing one for Cagle. He enthusiastically supported the measure last year, and he vowed that it had the support of a “silent majority” despite the governor’s veto.

That stance won Cagle no favors with the state’s top business boosters, who quickly voiced their concerns. The lieutenant governor struck a different tone in the run-up to this year’s legislative session, saying the debate should be left up to Congress. President Donald Trump’s victory, he added, sapped the need for new state protections because he’ll appoint conservatives to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Cagle’s three GOP rivals have staked out their positions: State Sens. Hunter Hill and Michael Williams both voted for the measure last year, and Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s campaign said he also supports the measure.

It has split many of the party’s stalwart activists, even those who have long supported religious liberty. Angelyn Dionysatos, a member of the state committee and a prominent GOP activist, said pledges are “dangerous.”

“When a politician signs a pledge, he or she becomes beholden to the language of the pledge and must substitute his or her own judgment for that of a small group of unelected individuals,” she said. “Pledges prevent our leaders from being able to make the very decisions that we, the people, elect them to make.”

John Wood, the chairman of the GOP’s 1st District, said he understands why some of the pledge’s backers view it as “the only way to keep the issue alive.” But he would rather see the state GOP pass resolutions that veer from the culture wars and instead focus on stronger economic policies or bolstering the state’s infrastructure.

“A RFRA resolution or signed pledge isn’t going to help defeat the Democrats in 2018,” Wood said. “I think most gubernatorial candidates would probably agree, but you know they are running for office — and people will do crazy things to get elected.”

The pledge is also an early test for John Watson, a lobbyist and onetime aide to Sonny Perdue who was elected in June as party chairman. His allies are pushing for a compromise that removes the pledge language. Brandon Phillips, an operative who is on the state committee, said doing so would prove that Watson “can successfully lead the many factions of our party.”

The staunchest supporters of the pledge are not going down without a fight.

State Rep. Sam Teasley, a Marietta Republican who has long championed the measure in the House, said “of course it is OK for the activists within the party to ask the person who aims to be the chief executive of the state to declare where they are on key issues.”

And Brant Frost V, an activist from west Georgia on the committee, pointed to a straw poll conducted at the June state convention that showed delegates were overwhelmingly in favor of the pledge.

“There’s nothing in the language that makes it compulsory or says candidates will be penalized if they don’t support it,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer. We know that candidates running for office always endorse the issue — and then they backtrack. We want to hold them accountable.”

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