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GOP gov hopefuls unite behind religious liberty, against casino gambling in first forum

The four leading Republican candidates for governor stood in unison behind Georgia’s controversial “religious liberty” measure and were lockstep against an effort to legalize casino gambling at the party’s first GOP gubernatorial forum.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, former state Sen. Hunter Hill and state Sen. Michael Williams had all previously pledged to sign the religious liberty proposal as governor, but Saturday's forum in Milledgeville was the first time they shared the stage to outline their views.

All four of the top candidates also vowed to oppose a constitutional amendment that would allow casino gambling in Georgia and funnel some proceeds to the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship. That effort has stalled in the Legislature in recent years, lacking forceful support from many GOP leaders.

It was the first formal showdown featuring the four highest-profile Republican contenders for governor, who also shared the stage with Marc Alan Urbach, an educator running as a constitutional conservative. A sixth contender, Clay Tippins, has also filed paperwork to run but has not formally announced.

The meeting, the first in a series of gubernatorial forums sponsored by the Georgia GOP continuing Sunday in Augusta, comes days after Democrats held their own “conversation” in Atlanta. That event, like this one, offered a preview of the race ahead to replace a term-limited Nathan Deal in 2018.

If Saturday’s event is any indication, the gambling giants that have long sought to break into Georgia’s market have their work cut out for them with the GOP field.

Hill, Kemp and Williams all said they would oppose the measure because it wasn’t necessary. (Said Hill: “We are doing fine without gambling.”) Cagle also said he’d reject it, then quickly pivoted to talk of “enormous opportunity” for economic development in south Georgia through other growing industries.

As for the yearslong battle over a state version of the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, each of the GOP candidates said, in their own ways, that it was overdue.

(Supporters see the measure as an added layer of legal protection for the faithful; critics call it state-sanctioned discrimination. Deal agreed with the latter, vetoing it in 2016 amid threats of economic boycotts.)

“I just don’t see an issue,” said Kemp.

“If it’s good enough for the federal government, it’s good enough for Georgia,” said Hill, invoking the 1993 federal version of the legislation adopted by Congress and signed by Bill Clinton.

“A nation that doesn’t protect your religious liberties won’t protect any of your liberties,” added Hill, a combat veteran, cautioning that he would bring his weapon to any country that doesn’t do so.

And Cagle, an unabashed supporter of the legislation in 2016 who was less enthusiastic about it this year, said he “will not back down” from his pledge if elected.

“I do not see it as discriminatory in any way,” Cagle said. “I believe that we must always fight to ensure that our religious liberties are protected in all circumstances.”

That brought a challenge from Williams, who casts himself as a Donald Trump loyalist, who dared Cagle to back the measure during next year’s legislative session so “he can show us all he truly does support religious liberty.”

One of the few areas where a sharper rift emerged involved a question about whether the candidates supported targeted tax breaks to industries, much like the incentives to filmmakers that have turned Georgia into a movie hub.

While several of the candidates talked about the need to slash taxes overall, Kemp and Williams didn't mince words.

Kemp said the state needs a hard spending cap and that he would vet whether the range of tax incentives the state offers truly works.

And Williams said that the state gives away “billions of dollars of tax credits every year to large corporations,” and that many of them only yield “not very good jobs.”

Read more recent AJC coverage of the governors race:

'Religious liberty' could have impact on Georgia's Amazon effort

Democratic forum previews a fight for 2018

Georgia gov hopeful gets heat over response to Las Vegas shootings

Democrats in Georgia governor's race push gun limits

Georgia governor race: Who is running in 2018

New relationship brewing between Georgia Republicans, alcohol

A divide over the two Staceys has Georgia Democrats worried

Candidates for governor are showing rural Georgia some love

Governor’s race revives a familiar feud between Kemp, Abrams

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.