SAVANNAH — The rivals campaigning to become Georgia's next governor clashed Friday over whether the state needs a law offering protection for citizens acting on religious belief — an issue the outgoing Republican governor shot down amid an outcry from business leaders who joined gay rights groups in arguing it would legalize discrimination.
Democrat Stacey Abrams told an economic developers conference she opposes any form of so-called "religious freedom" law, saying the threat of employers boycotting Georgia is so real that "even the mere conversation is now toxic."
Republican Bryan Kemp, in a separate appearance before the same group, said he would sign only a narrowly drawn version that mirrors existing federal law. He insisted such a law "doesn't discriminate."
The issue has persisted in Georgia since GOP Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a religious protections bill that passed the legislature in 2016. On one side, religious conservatives wanted additional legal protections for opponents of same-sex marriage. On the other, major corporations threatened to leave the state if Deal signed the bill. The NFL even warned that Atlanta's bid to host a Super Bowl was in jeopardy.
Some Georgia lawmakers have tried to revive some version of the measure since. But they failed to gain enough support in the face of unflinching opposition from Deal, who is finishing his second and final term and will leave office in January.
Kemp, Georgia's GOP secretary of state, and Abrams, a former Democratic lawmaker seeking to become the first black woman elected a U.S. governor, made back-to-back appearances Friday before about 400 people attending a conference of the Georgia Economic Developers Association. Voters will elect one of them at the polls Nov. 6.
Both candidates were asked whether they would sign a religious protection bill if one was passed by lawmakers. A recent survey of the association's members, mostly people who serve on local chambers of commerce and development authorities, showed most oppose such laws, said Kevin Shea, the group's president.
Abrams said her parents were Methodist ministers who raised her to believe that "discriminating against others is a violation of my faith." She echoed Deal's reasoning that religious freedoms are best protected by the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment.
"As a matter of law it is unnecessary," Abrams said. "As a matter of conscience it is wrong. And as an economic issue it is a death knell to the fastest growing parts of our economy."
Kemp previously made a pledge to sign a religious protection law when he faced a crowded GOP field in the Republican primary, where religious conservatives form an influential constituency. He told the Savannah group Friday he would only consider a law that mirrors the 1993 Religious Freedoms Restoration Act signed by President Bill Clinton.
Deal was then among the bipartisan group in Congress that passed the 1993 law, which says government can't "substantially burden a person's free exercise of religion" except for "in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest." It was enacted in response to Native Americans who were denied unemployment benefits after being fired for ingesting peyote during a religious ceremony.
"What I would like to do is get that federal law language introduced and passed — nothing more, nothing less," Kemp said. "It doesn't discriminate. If anybody says it does, then they must believe that the federal statute discriminates."
The GOP nominee said Georgia should tackle the issue so it can "put that behind us and move on."