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Ga. lawmakers leave without vote on religious freedom bill
Religious Freedom Bil Heal
Demonstrators attend a rally against a religious freedom bill near the Georgia capitol building in Atlanta on Tuesday, March 31, 2015. A divisive religious freedom bill remains stalled in a Georgia House committee as lawmakers enter the final two days of the legislative session surrounded by pressure from supporters and critics who say the bill can be used as a defense for discrimination against gay or transgender people. - photo by Associated Press

ATLANTA - State leaders already expect the return of a Georgia religious freedom bill that became a flashpoint for a debate about discrimination against gays but never received a vote as the General Assembly finished the year's legislative session Thursday.

Business and other groups have criticized similar proposals in Indiana and Arkansas. In response, lawmakers there announced changes in the legislation.

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 say it would provide a legal basis for discrimination against gays.

"I was disappointed about some of the rhetoric that came out of that debate," Republican House Speaker David Ralston told reporters after the House adjourned Thursday at midnight. "I'm hoping that we can step back over the interim and catch our breaths and have a calmer, more reasoned discussion about that measure."

State Sen. Josh McKoon, the measure's sponsor, said he plans to focus on summer conventions for the statewide Republican party and in Georgia's congressional districts.

That could further expose a rift in Georgia's GOP over the issue.

Eric Tanenblatt, the state chair of George W. Bush's presidential campaign in 2000 and a major Republican fundraiser, said both sides should negotiate when passions subside following the session.

"We need to be cognizant of the fact that there's a changing demographic in this state," he said. "That means there are going to be people in the party that perhaps have different views than others. If the Republican Party wants to be a big tent, they're going to have to find a place for people with differing views."

Supporters tabled the Georgia bill last week after a Republican member of the panel added language preventing it from being used as a defense for discrimination banned under federal, state or local law. The measure's sponsor, state Sen. Josh McKoon, said earlier Thursday that he would make every effort to get a vote but Ralston shut down the possibility of any attempts to evade the House committee process.

Republican Gov. Nathan Deal told reporters Thursday that he expects the issue to return next year but wouldn't speculate about the details of future legislation.

"I think we all understand that this is a difficult decision," Deal said. "I hope that if and when it comes to my desk in the future that it will not have the same kind of divisiveness associated with it that has been experienced in those two states."

McKoon and other supporters have said the bill is modeled on 1993's federal Restoration of Religious Freedom Act and argue that the federal law and versions in other states have never been used to successfully defend discrimination. Kentucky's governor this week called for clarification of that state's 2013 religious freedom law.

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.

The GOP-controlled Senate easily passed the bill in March. But Ralston repeatedly questioned what the bill could add to constitutional protection for religion.

Top Georgia businesses, including Delta Air Lines, Home Depot and UPS, loudly opposed a tougher measure last session but stayed quiet this year while focusing on a $900 million infrastructure package that earned final passage this week.

Early Thursday, Atlanta-based Coca-Cola issued a statement against "any legislation that discriminates, in our home state of Georgia or anywhere else."



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