- Associated Press - Saturday, May 16, 2015

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) - Georgia Republicans on Saturday backed passage of a state law preventing government infringement on religious beliefs, which opponents say could be used as a shield for discriminating against gay or transgender people.

Passage of similar laws prompted backlash from businesses and others in Indiana and Arkansas, forcing Republican lawmakers in those states to make revisions.

Saturday’s outcome was all but assumed after delegates in 11 Georgia congressional districts this spring supported a resolution calling for the bill’s passage. The resolution demands passage of the Senate’s version with no changes. The bill remains active for the 2016 session.

The item was part of a package of resolutions developed by a committee, passed with no discussion. The package also included a resolution encouraging state education officials to push for changes to the Advanced Placement U.S. History exam, which conservatives have criticized as portraying American actions negatively.

But it’s unclear what effect the push from conservatives on the “religious freedom” bill will have during the next legislative session. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston have called for a bill that clearly prevents its use as a shield for discrimination.

Ralston made no mention of the issue while speaking to delegates on Saturday, several of whom booed when he was introduced. Ralston urged party members to focus on core principles “rather than those few things about which we may respectfully disagree.”

Georgia’s major businesses also made their opposition to such a law clear during the past two years, and seemed emboldened by backlash to laws passed in Indiana and Arkansas earlier this year. Atlanta-based Coca-Cola issued a statement on the final day of the 2015 session against “any legislation that discriminates, in our home state of Georgia or anywhere else” as GOP governors and lawmakers in those states scrambled to make revisions. Other Republican fundraisers and party leaders have warned that the issue will discourage young voters.

More than 76 percent of Georgia residents voted in 2004 to change the 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.

Saturday’s debate put the party’s split over the bill on full display, including as delegates selected a party chairman. State Sen. Mike Crane of Newnan urged support for the challenger Alex Johnson and accused party leaders of “cowering behind those corporate giants” opposed to the bill.

Sitting chairman John Padgett was re-elected by about 200 votes to the post after overseeing the 2014 election that maintained all top federal and state offices for the party.

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. It easily passed the Senate but stalled in the House this session after a Republican member of a committee added non-discrimination language. Supporters of the bill said that would gut its protection for people acting on religious faith.

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Follow Kathleen Foody on Twitter at https://twitter.com/katiefoody.

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