There’s been a raucous debate over one form or another of several “religious freedom” bills for the last three years in Georgia, with both sides pretty clearly defined—the religious right on one side and the LGBT community, business community and more progressive faith leaders on the other. That same definition has applied in this year’s legislative session during the debate over House Bill 757.

But a rift that’s always bubbled under the surface erupted on March 3, when Gov. Nathan Deal told the AJC he would reject any measure that “allows discrimination in our state in order to protect people of faith,” urged religious conservatives not to feel threatened by the U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, and called on fellow Republicans who are in favor of the bill to take a deep breath and “recognize that the world is changing around us.”

Needless to say, there were many who did not take that deep breath. Leaders of the religious right swarmed over the comments, but is this a short-term fight or did the governor set the table for a more permanent divide? And by making a biblical argument for discrimination, did Deal (a Southern Baptist) provide a roadmap for other legislators to follow as the debate about “religious freedom” and LGBT rights continues on in the years ahead?

House Republicans compared to Hitler

The response was swift. Tony Perkins of the anti-LGBT hate group Family Research Council wrote on the group’s blog that Deal was “using his faith as a fig leaf to hide behind.” Andrew Walker of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention) wrote an editorial in the National Review against Deal’s comments, as did Pastor Tom Rush of Berean Baptist Church in Social Circle on his blog.

But none of this compared to Mike Griffin, the public affairs director of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, who in a March 10 post in the Christian Index compared Republican House members to Adolph Hitler for failing to move HB 757 forward. Lawmakers bashed Griffin from the House floor later that morning.

Rabbi Peter Berg of The Temple in Midtown Atlanta has a different take on Deal’s comments. Berg worked on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a rabbinical student in 1993 but opposes a state version of the bill as well as House Bill 757.

“I think the governor’s read is exactly right,” he tells Georgia Voice. “Whether you’re looking at the Torah, the Quran or the New Testament, all of our sacred scriptures from all of our religions are all about tolerance and loving your neighbor as yourself, and all support those kinds of significant religious freedoms. I’m glad that the governor spoke truth to power and shot down a bill that would have been very dangerous for Georgia. I wish that more lawmakers, many of whom like to quote the Bible with great frequency, would consult the text in its entirety instead of cherry picking quotes here and there, [so they can] understand the purpose and the intent of our sacred scriptures.”

‘This is brilliant’

Doug Teper, a former state representative and current adjunct professor of American government and Georgia politics at Georgia State University, had an instant reaction to Deal’s comments.

“When I saw that quote, I just thought, ‘This is brilliant,’” he tells Georgia Voice. “That is such a great way to take the other side.”

Teper sees the rift having implications at least into November, mentioning Donald Trump’s potential effect on down ballot races in the 2016 presidential election and saying, “The Republican Party’s not going anywhere for a while, but if you’re having these other battles down ballot like in the legislature, they could have a problem and it shapes up pretty much like the Chamber of Commerce Republicans versus the religious right.”

But by exposing that rift, did Deal also provide a roadmap for other lawmakers to use in explaining their opposition to such bills in the future?

“Yes, definitely. It was very well said. One of the oldest tricks in the book is if you’re a politician anywhere in the Bible Belt to find a good quote in the Bible that fits your needs at the time,” Teper says laughing. “They’re all in there, so you can find one that meets pretty much any of your needs.”

Republican Roadmap? Gov. Nathan Deal’s biblical argument against discrimination

The following are excerpts of comments Gov. Nathan Deal made in a March 3 interview with the AJC:

“What the New Testament teaches us is that Jesus reached out to those who were considered the outcasts, the ones that did not conform to the religious societies’ view of the world … we do not have a belief in my way of looking at religion that says we have to discriminate against anybody. If you were to apply those standards to the teaching of Jesus, I don’t think they fit.”

Then after citing a passage from the Gospel of John that showed Jesus reaching out to an outcast:

“What that says is we have a belief in forgiveness and that we do not have to discriminate unduly against anyone on the basis of our own religious beliefs. We are not jeopardized, in my opinion, by those who believe differently from us. We are not, in my opinion, put in jeopardy by virtue of those who might hold different beliefs or who may not even agree with what our Supreme Court said the law of the land is on the issue of same-sex marriage. I do not feel threatened by the fact that people who might choose same-sex marriages pursue that route.”

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