Athens - The Republican Party of Georgia overwhelmingly endorsed a version of "religious liberty" legislation without an anti-discrimination clause sought by corporate heavyweights and some of the state's top GOP leaders.
The endorsement from the party's delegates at the GOP convention Saturday came in the form of a voice vote with no debate. It passed by a large majority.
The legislation stalled this year in the state Legislature after opposition from House Speaker David Ralston and Gov. Nathan Deal. The governor, for one, said he considered the anti-discrimination language essential. Ralston, who was greeted with a smattering of boos at the convention, didn't mention the debate during brief remarks to delegates.
GOP activists at 11 of 14 district meetings endorsed language without the clause, setting the stage for Saturday's vote. The fight to reconcile the competing plans created a sharp divide within the party that seem likely to animate next year's legislative session.
"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. "They rejected the arguments of the far-left that passing restrictions on government's ability to burden the free exercise of religion is somehow equated to discriminating against individuals."
The legislation, Senate Bill 129, was a constant source of debate this legislative session. Supporters describe it as a way to protect people of any religion from government interference. Opponents worry it could lead to discrimination against gays and lesbians and inspire frivolous lawsuits.
It was swiftly approved by Senate lawmakers, but tabled in the House after three Republicans joined with Democrats to add an anti-discrimination amendment. And the uproar over similar bills in Arkansas and Indiana, which led to threats of boycotts and international criticism, along with pushback from iconic Georgia businesses, seemed to seal its fate.
The Republican delegates also endorsed resolutions that would make it harder for some immigrants with work permits to obtain drivers licenses, another that calls for the election of State Board of Education members and a third that depicts an AP US history course as a "radically revisionist review of American history."