House Speaker David Ralston sent a loud and clear message to backers of anti-gay “religious freedom” proposals: Leave it to the feds and let Georgia lawmakers avoid a fourth year of contentious debate over the legislation.

The warning from the powerful Republican lawmaker comes as religious conservatives prepare another round of anti-LGBT legislation when the Georgia legislature returns in January. They’ve promised it and are strategizing on how to pass it despite business groups lining up against it.

Ralston (photo) said he wants federal lawmakers to take a crack at “religious freedom” legislation so Georgia lawmakers can avoid the issue that mired them in national controversy earlier this year. Ralston, despite not quite grasping why the legislation is anti-gay, pushed House colleagues to settle on a Pastor Protection Act as a compromise after stalling “religious freedom” legislation in past years. That worked – until lawmakers in the Senate balked and spit up a bill that morphed anti-gay provisions from three pieces of legislation into one. That measure quickly passed both chambers in March and only died when Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed it.

Ralston isn’t itching for a fight over the legislation in 2017, telling GPB’s “Political Rewind” that he’s content to let a new Congress deal with it. Via AJC:

“I think it is a federal issue, so I’m very content to let them deal with it. I don’t hear much discussion about it. There was a lot of concern in the period of time right after the veto, but I think as people have kind of stepped back and taken a look at it, I think they realize that it’s a little more complex and has dimensions that you might not expect when you flash up the words ‘religious freedom’ or ‘religious liberty.’ Because, you know, we all believe in that….

“So I think it would be healthy for the Congress to have a debate, and let’s see what they do….”

Besides, Ralston knows how to read political tea leaves. He’s not interested in seeing a replay of Gov. Pat McCrory – the Republican governor of North Carolina ousted last month over his pursuit of anti-LGBT House Bill 2 – unfold in Georgia. Via AJC:

“Look at North Carolina…I don’t think many Republicans in North Carolina lost on general Election Day. I think he was the only one. Governor McCrory certainly became Exhibit A on this issue. They’ve had a lot of fallout from their decision to adopt a similar measure up there. Frankly, it would be irresponsible of us to ignore that.”

But like earlier this year, Ralston could see his political hand forced by Republicans in the state Senate. David Shafer, the Senate President Pro Tem, played a role in morphing anti-LGBT provisions into House Bill 757 and pushing it through the Senate in March. With Shafer considering a run for lieutenant governor in 2018 in a GOP primary likely filled with religious conservatives, he might be looking to score political points by bashing the state’s LGBT residents.

The AJC took Shafer’s temperature on “religious freedom” legislation last week after his speech before the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. He didn’t bite, according to the AJC.

He made no mention of the contentious fight over the “religious liberty” bill during his comments and declined to discuss the matter after his remarks.

Shafer is besties with Rev. Yoon Young Chung, senior pastor at Atlanta Grace of God Church in Suwanee, and invited him to the Senate in January to call homosexuality "an abomination." Shafer also isn’t a fan of federal guidelines concerning the safety of transgender students.