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Ralston dampens Kemp pledge to sign 'Religious Freedom' bill
Ga. speaker: Proposal is 'solution in search of a problem'
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston holds his annual pre-session press conference Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019, in Atlanta. He threw cold water on the idea - promoted by leaders in the House and Senate - that Georgia should raise cigarette taxes during the upcoming General Assembly session. Ralston also said it may not be feasible for Gov.-elect Brian Kemp to get his $5,000 teacher pay raise this year, but some hike is likely. - photo by Associated Press

ATLANTA — Georgia's Republican House Speaker David Ralston says he doesn't favor another attempt to pass a so-called "religious freedom" law that protects people acting on religious beliefs, a position that could put him at odds with fellow Republican Gov.-elect Brian Kemp.

Ralston said Thursday during a state Capitol news conference that he's concerned a state version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993, "has a real potential to divide us as a state."

"It's a much different world than it was in 1993," Ralston said.

Kemp, who will be sworn in Monday, repeatedly vowed to sign a mirror image of the federal RFRA bill while courting the right wing of his party during his hotly contested race against Democrat Stacey Abrams. Kemp said on the campaign trail that he would only sign a narrowly drawn mirror of the federal law — "nothing more, nothing less" — and insisted such a law doesn't discriminate.

But many Democrats and LGBT activists fear that it would allow state-sanctioned discrimination against gay and lesbian individuals by citizens, businesses and organizations on religious grounds.

"I would just ask us to pause before we get into an issue that has the potential to tear the fabric of the state," Ralston said. He also called the proposal a "solution in search of a problem" and pointed to other states that have experienced backlash and boycotts after passing legislation seen as similarly discriminatory.

Kemp reiterated his support for a "religious freedom" bill during a pre-inauguration event Wednesday in Augusta, but declined to say whether he would push a bill as part of his legislative agenda or wait for the legislature to act.

Lawmakers from the conservative flank of the GOP have sought another chance at passing "religious freedom" legislation after a previous bill was vetoed by now-outgoing Republican Gov. Nathan Deal.

Deal took a stand against his own party and averted threatened boycotts by major corporations in 2016 by vetoing a "religious freedom" bill that enumerated actions that "people of faith" would not have to perform for other people.

"I do not think that we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia," Deal said at the time.

As the leader of the House, Ralston has great sway in deciding what legislation moves forward. He said he intends to focus on issues he sees as critical and pressing, like rural broadband, access to health care and school safety.

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