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'Religious freedom' bill stuck in committee, may not emerge
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ATLANTA (AP) — A Georgia religious freedom bill that became a flashpoint for a debate over anti-gay discrimination was bottled up in a state House committee Thursday, and its sponsor said he did not expect it to emerge in the closing hours of this year's General Assembly.

Supporters tabled the bill last week after a Republican member of the panel added language preventing it from being used as a defense for discrimination banned under federal, state or local law.

Lawmakers face a midnight deadline to adjourn for the year. Unless the bill emerges from the committee Thursday, it is dead for the year. The sponsor, Sen. Josh McKoon, said he has no indication the House will act Thursday.

The Georgia bill would forbid 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. Opponents say it would provide a legal basis for discrimination against gays.

The proposal has divided the Capitol, sparking protests in the rotunda featuring clergy who either castigated the bill's potential effects or pleaded for its passage. Business and other groups have criticized similar proposals in Indiana and Arkansas. In response, lawmakers there plan changes in the legislation.

McKoon and other supporters have said the bill is modeled on 1993's federal Restoration of Religious Freedom Act and argue that the federal law and versions in other states have never been used to successfully defend discrimination. Kentucky's governor this week called for clarification of that state's 2013 religious freedom law.

Historically, deeply conservative Georgia has taken a harsh stance on gay rights. More than 76 percent of residents voted in 2004 to change Georgia's 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.

The GOP-controlled Senate easily passed the bill in March. But Republican House Speaker David Ralston has repeatedly questioned what the bill could add to constitutional protection for religion and said he wanted House members to understand any "unintended consequences" of the measure.

"Closing the door to anyone is closing the door to all," he said in a March speech before the Atlanta Press Club.

Top Georgia businesses, including Delta Air Lines, Home Depot and UPS, loudly opposed a tougher measure last session but stayed quiet this year while focusing on a $900 million infrastructure package that earned final passage this week.

Early Thursday, Atlanta-based Coca-Cola issued a statement against "any legislation that discriminates, in our home state of Georgia or anywhere else."

McKoon failed Thursday afternoon to resurrect his plan by attaching it to other legislation. However, McKoon said if the bill dies for this session he plans to focus on summer conventions for the statewide Republican party and in Georgia's congressional districts.

That could further expose a rift in Georgia's GOP over the issue, concerning members ranging from top GOP fundraisers to local county chairs.

Eric Tanenblatt, the state chair of George W. Bush's presidential campaign in 2000 and a major Republican fundraiser, said both sides should negotiate when passions subside following the session.

"We need to be cognizant of the fact that there's a changing demographic in this state," he said. "That means there are going to be people in the party that perhaps have different views than others. If the Republican Party wants to be a big tent, they're going to have to find a place for people with differing views."