By Patricia Reaney and Eric Kelsey
NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES, Dec 19 (Reuters) - The suspension of TV personality Phil Robertson of A&E's hit reality show "Duck Dynasty" for making anti-gay comments has sparked a politically charged debate about religion and tolerance while casting doubt on the series' future.
Robertson, the patriarch of the backwater Louisiana clan on the reality show about hunting, fishing and domestic squabbles, was put on indefinite "hiatus" by the cable network A&E for his remarks to GQ magazine characterizing homosexuality as sinful behavior.
"Start with homosexual behavior and just morph from there," Robertson, 67, said when asked what is sinful. "Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men."
A&E, a joint venture of privately held Hearst Corp and Walt Disney Co, said it was disappointed after reading Robertson's remarks, which it added were his personal views and did not reflect those of the network.
"The network has placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely," it said in a statement.
A&E was not immediately available to comment beyond the statement.
"Duck Dynasty," one of cable TV's top non-sports programs that has turned its bearded stars into celebrities, has spawned hundreds of merchandise items sold at retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart, from sporting goods and apparel to camouflage reclining furniture.
Reaction to Robertson's comments was swift from across the political spectrum with gay rights group GLAAD condemning the remarks while conservative politicians lined up to defend the reality TV star.
"Phil's decision to push vile and extreme stereotypes is a stain on A&E and his sponsors, who now need to reexamine their ties to someone with such public disdain for LGBT people and families," GLAAD said in a statement.
But those across the aisle, including former U.S. Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, leapt to Robertson's defense saying he was a victim of political correctness.
PAST CLASH OVER RELIGION
"Free speech is an endangered species: Those 'intolerants' hatin' & taking on Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing personal opinion take on us all," tweeted Palin.
Jindal, also a Republican and possible 2016 U.S. presidential candidate, criticized A&E's reaction and described Robertson and his family, who turned their animal-call company Duck Commander into a hunting industry leader, as "great citizens of the State of Louisiana."
"The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with," Jindal said in a statement.
It is also not the first time Robertson and the network have clashed over religion. In April, Robertson said he had confronted producers about editing out the word "Jesus" from some of the prayers they say on the show.
Faith Driven Consumer, a group that connects Christian shoppers with faith-compatible companies, also started a petition drive to reinstate Robertson immediately.
"Simply put, Phil Robertson is being censored and punished for quoting the Bible, and A&E's treatment of him is punitive and highly discriminatory," said Chris Stone, the organization's founder.
A&E's quick move to indefinitely suspend Robertson stands in contrast to cable channels The Food Network and MSNBC, which both waited days before parting with Southern food doyenne Paula Deen and actor Alec Baldwin, respectively, after they both admitted to using slurs.
Deen's food empire has crumbled in the wake of admitting to using a racial epithet in the past, while Baldwin lost his talk show program for directing a gay slur at a photographer.
It was unclear how "Duck Dynasty" would proceed without its patriarch. It drew 11.8 million viewers in August for the debut of its fourth season, a record for a cable nonfiction series, according to A&E.
The show's fifth season is set to air on Jan. 15, 2014.