Some in Georgia GOP fear harm from 'religious freedom' issue

Some in Georgia GOP fear harm from 'religious freedom' issue

April 4th, 2015 by Associated Press in National Georgia

FILE- In this March 17, 2015 file photo, protestors hold up signs during a rally against a contentious "religious freedom" bill in Atlanta. The divide within the Georgia Republican Party on a religious free measure came into clear focus at the March rally opposing the bill. “I will not let a small minority of vocal legislators hijack my state,” David Bachman told the crowd outside the Georgia Capitol. Bachman is a 26-year-old gay man who owns a tie-making company and has been involved with Republican campaigns since high school, personifying the split between his party’s business wing and religious backers. The bill failed to get a House vote on Thursday as lawmakers adjourned for the year. It is likely to return in 2016. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

Photo by The Associated Press /Times Free Press.

ATLANTA (AP) - The divide within the Georgia Republican Party on a religious free measure came into clear focus at a March rally opposing the bill.

"I will not let a small minority of vocal legislators hijack my state," David Bachman told the crowd outside the Georgia Capitol.

Bachman is a 26-year-old gay man who owns a tie-making company and has been involved with Republican campaigns since high school, personifying the split between his party's business wing and religious backers. The bill failed to get a House vote on Thursday as lawmakers adjourned for the year.

It is likely to return in 2016.

The stalemate lets Georgia avoid backlash following passage of laws with similar goals in Indiana and Arkansas. Meanwhile, supporters plan to raise the issue at the state party's convention in May as Georgia Republicans lead a push for more Southern state influence in selecting the 2016 presidential nominee.

Republicans ranging from top GOP fundraisers to local county chairs are wary of what the continued debate will mean for their party.

"I'm a member of a growing majority of conservatives who are against any legislation that would discriminate," Bachman said this week. "These are our friends, family members, and we just don't see things the way our parents did."

The Georgia bill would have forbidden government from infringing on a person's religious beliefs unless the government can prove a compelling interest. It would cover individuals, closely held companies such as Hobby Lobby and religious organizations. Opponents said it would provide a legal basis for discrimination against gays.

The measure's sponsor, state Sen. Josh McKoon, on Thursday criticized the House for buckling under pressure. He said similar legislation in other states and federally has not been successfully used to defend discrimination.

"It's much broader than this bill," McKoon said. "There are people in the Republican party who believe our purpose is to do what the Chamber of Commerce says. There are others who believe our purpose is to follow the party's founding principles."

The state's economic powers largely stayed behind the scenes this year but made their disapproval clear in recent days. As lawmakers began their final day, Atlanta-based Coca-Cola issued a statement opposing "any legislation that discriminates, in our home state of Georgia or anywhere else."

Republican Gov. Nathan Deal said Thursday that he could sign a measure close to the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Rights Act that he supported in Congress - with added language the state law could not be used to discriminate. But he wouldn't discuss the debate's effect on the party.

"I'm not in the branding business," he said.

Polling consistently shows younger voters are more accepting of gay rights. Historically, deeply conservative Georgia has taken a harsh stance on gay rights. More than 76 percent of residents voted in 2004 to change Georgia's state constitution to ban gay marriage. Views appear to have softened somewhat since then. About 62 percent of Georgia voters said they opposed gay marriage in an exit poll taken in November.

"I think that there's changing demographics in the entire country, including the Southeast," said Eric Tanenblatt, a major Republican fundraiser. "I think that it's important for party leaders to understand that. It doesn't mean they have to change their particular personal views on things, but I think it requires that if the Republican Party is going to continue being a dominant party they're going to have to be accepting of people in their party who have different views on different issues."

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Associated Press Writer Ray Henry contributed to this report.