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Greg Bluestein

Johnny Isakson: Georgia should leave ‘religious liberty’ up to feds

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Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) speaks during a news conference discussing defunding Planned Parenthood at the Capitol Building in Washington, July 29, 2015. (Zach Gibson/The New York Times)

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) speaks during a news conference in Washington in July. (Zach Gibson/The New York Times)

Sen. Johnny Isakson didn’t outright call on Gov. Nathan Deal to veto the controversial “religious liberty” legislation waiting on his desk. But the two-term Georgia Republican left little to the imagination in remarks Monday criticizing the measure.

“I’ve said at the beginning of the session that I think it’s a national issue. It ought to be a seamless policy. Any time you have state-by-state policies, you run the risk of having conflicts,” he said of House Bill 757. “I think it’s better to begin at the federal level. The Constitution guarantees religious liberty under the First Amendment, so anything that passes to carry that out ought to be a federal statute and not a state statute.”

A revamped version of the measure swept through the state Legislature last week after more than three years of debate. Supporters say the patchwork of local standards compelled them to push the legislation, and that it offers needed protections for faith-based organizations to object to same-sex marriages on religious grounds.

But critics say it would legalize discrimination against gays and warn of growing corporate outrage similar to the blowback against a similar bill in Indiana.

Deal, who has until May 3 to sign or veto the measure, hasn’t tipped his hand. But he said earlier this month that he would reject any measure that amounted to discrimination, and he made a forceful and biblical case against a previous version of the bill.

Isakson, who is among the sponsors of a federal version of the First Amendment Defense Act, on Monday said Georgia would be “far better off” leaving the debate to the U.S. Congress.

“It’s a federal issue. The First Amendment guarantees that government will not establish religion, so the federal government ought to be the one that establishes the laws under that amendment, rather than having 50 different standards in 50 different states,” he said.

He added: “You have to be very careful when you do something that is really federal in nature, which the First Amendment to the Constitution is about as federal as you get.”

Isakson was then asked specifically whether Deal, who has previously said he would reject any measure that legalizes discrimination, should veto the bill.

“That’s Governor Deal’s responsibility. But I think he ought to look long and hard at the ramifications. He’s a good man that usually does the right thing. And I’m sure he will in this case.”

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More: Inside Nathan Deal’s debate over the new ‘religious liberty’ measure