ATLANTA, July 26, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) - As Georgia Republicans prepare for a primary ballot question on whether human life begins at conception, Catholic Church leaders are withholding key support for the measure, a move that one state pro-life leader says is based on a misguided argument.

Ballot Question 5 will appear before voters in all 159 counties in Georgia’s GOP primary on July 31. The question, essentially a survey of GOP voters, reads: “Do you support an amendment to the Georgia state constitution so as to provide that the paramount right to life is vested in each human being from the earliest biological beginning until natural death?”

Supporters say the non-binding question is designed to act as a weathervane showing state politicians the depth of pro-life conviction among Georgia voters in hopes of impacting the future of legislative policy. Georgia Right to Life (GRTL) reports that polls show support for the question as high as 70 percent.

“Imagine what our state polticians are going to see when their own constituents say they’re pro-life overwhelmingly and that life begins at conception - how that would promote pro-life legislation at all levels,” GRTL president Dan Becker told LifeSiteNews (LSN) this week. “It’s a tremendous tool to be able to move public opinion and impact public policy.”

Unlike the personhood question on general election ballots in states like Colorado and Mississippi, Ballot Question 5 has no legal weight to change the state Constitution or other law.

The state Catholic bishops’ conference, led by the Archdiocese of Atlanta under Archbishop Wilton Gregory, has said it is against supporting the Personhood bid. It is basing its argument against Ballot Question 5 on litigation concerns surrounding HR 536, a 2008 personhood question for Georgia’s general election ballot that had the power to change the state Constitution.

In a July 19 op-ed in the archdiocesan paper Georgia Bulletin, Rev. Douglas Clark described Ballot Question 5 as “tilting at windmills,” and cited the bishops’ conclusion about HR 536 four years ago. “It will do nothing to curb abortions in Georgia and, moreover, may prove a distracting windmill in Atlanta, just when our attention needs to be focused on the ‘ferocious giants’ in Washington,” wrote Clark.

An internal memo to clergy, religious, seminarians, and other diocesan leaders dated July 23 from the Respect Life office and the Georgia Catholic Conference indicated the position of non-support was in line with the policy goals of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, because the national conference has focused on a federal Constitutional amendment. The memo, which the archdiocese provided to LSN, said Georgia bishops, like prelates in other states, would not support Ballot Question 5 because they would not back an amendment “which does not provide a realistic opportunity to end or reduce abortion.” “It is important to clarify that our position is not a disagreement about the fundamental teachings on the right to life. We will continue to work for positive alternatives and solutions that will actually save lives in Georgia,” it concluded.

The memo directs readers to a longer document regarding HR 536, listing constitutional concerns as well as several points under “Potential for Serious Negative Consequences.” One such point states that, should the Personhood amendment be declared unconstitutional, “a void provision does not legally exist, so if Roe were later overturned, the amendment would not spring back into existence and Georgia would have to begin the constitutional amendment process all over again.”

GRTL president Dan Becker told LifeSiteNews.com in a telephone interview this week that the bishops’ arguments against supporting HR 536 don’t apply to Ballot Question 5.

“It only talks about the futility of the Supreme Court challenge. That has nothing to do with a question on a ballot that has a political impact,” said Becker, referring to the Bulletin article. “There’s nothing binding about a political question on a primary ballot.”

“From the standpoint of wanting to communicate to our elected officials how the pro-life voters of the state of Georgia are ... [the bishops] are coming out against that, against the ability to speak to our legislature,” he said. “They’re really aiming at a legal outcome that is years down the road, so they misconstrued the whole exercise here.”

Becker said that he has met frequently since January with archdiocesan officials, among whom are “friends of long standing,” yet still failed to reach common ground. “Obviously we disagree on strategy and on what’s most effective. We’d love to continue to work with them towards common goals legislatively and policy-wise,” he said.  Becker, who is a non-denominational Christian, said about half the members of GRTL are Catholics.

When asked for a response to Becker’s comments, the archdiocese provided LifeSiteNews a statement by Respect Life Director Mary Boyert. “Advocates for the state personhood amendment are pursuing their agenda despite being fully informed of the serious concerns raised by the Catholic bishops of Georgia,” it said.

Georgia Catholic Conference executive director Frank Mulcahy added that the state bishops’ conference “remains committed to working on state and federal initiatives that will truly lead to the protection of all human life.”

Meanwhile, Becker says that the enthusiastically pro-life position of GOP leaders in Georgia can be attributed to the sometimes-controversial Personhood approach, which he called “a return to first principles” of the pro-life movement.

Unlike previous points in the movement’s history, he said, this is the first time enthusiasm for Personhood “has gone beyond the Catholic leadership.” “Both Catholic faithful and evangelicals are joining forces for the first time, and this is where I see the sticking power,” he said.

“The archbishops will be won over by the sheer pragmatism of the outcome. And then once again well have a single voice and a solid voice representing the sanctity of human life.”