FIRE & BRIM­STONE

Ex­trem­ists fan flames of LGBT dis­crim­i­na­tion un­der the Gold Dome

GA Voice - - Front Page - By PA­TRICK SAUN­DERS psaun­ders@the­gavoice.com

Alex Wan was sit­ting in his of­fice at City Hall shortly be­fore the Thanks­giv­ing break when an em­ployee from the city’s fire depart­ment asked to speak to him.

The em­ployee handed Wan a pa­per­back book. Pic­tured on the cover was an an­drog­y­nous fig­ure lean­ing against a large red ques­tion mark. The ti­tle was, “Who Told You That You Were Naked?” Sev­eral in­flam­ma­tory pas­sages, in­clud­ing some com­par­ing gay peo­ple to child mo­lesters, were marked with Post-it notes. The em­ployee said the books had been dis­trib­uted to fire depart­ment em­ploy­ees by the au­thor, then-Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran.

Wan, fear­ing le­gal ac­tion against the city by fire depart­ment em­ploy­ees due to the book’s con­tent, took it to the city’s Hu­man Re­la­tions Com­mis­sioner, and within days, Mayor Kasim Reed sus­pended Cochran. The mayor later fired him for pub­lish­ing the book with­out of­fi­cial per­mis­sion and not­ing his con­fi­dence in Cochran was eroded for his bad judg­ment for, among other things, speak­ing out pub­licly dur­ing his sus­pen­sion de­spite be­ing asked not to.

Although Wan said he had a pleas­ant pro­fes­sional re­la­tion­ship with Cochran and there was no in­di­ca­tion of ho­mo­pho­bia, as a gay man Wan was not sur­prised to learn of the for­mer fire chief’s anti-gay views. But the hate mail, the angry phone calls that he’s re­ceived—those were not ex­pected.

“I think with the light­ning speed of our equal­ity, I let some of my guard down,” he says.” Th­ese are jolts, re­minders like this that we still have a long way to go.”

Cochran’s new role is as the face of so­called “re­li­gious free­dom” bills be­ing pre- sented in the Ge­or­gia state leg­is­la­ture. This was made crys­tal clear at a re­cent rally at the state capi­tol where re­li­gious lead­ers de­cried Cochran’s fir­ing and called on the au­di­ence, which num­bered in the hun­dreds, to support such bills.

Op­po­nents of such bills say they are a di­rect re­ac­tion to the “light­ning speed,” as Wan put it, of ad­vanc­ing LGBT equal­ity in re­cent years, high­lighted by the fall of same­sex mar­riage bans across the coun­try. Pro­po­nents of the bills deny a link be­tween the two, say­ing the bills are sim­ply a re­sponse to a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court rul­ing.

Ei­ther way, with sim­i­lar bills be­ing in­tro­duced in Michi­gan, Texas, North Carolina and Utah along with Ge­or­gia this year, a na­tional di­a­logue has bro­ken out. “Re­li­gious free­dom” bills: anti-LGBT land­mine or much ado about noth­ing?

AL­LOW­ING BUSI­NESSES TO DIS­CRIM­I­NATE AGAINST LGBTS?

In 1993, a bill in­tro­duced by a Demo­cratic con­gress­man was passed unan­i­mously by a U.S. House with a Demo­cratic majority, and near unan­i­mously by a U.S. Se­nate with a Demo­cratic majority, and signed into law by a Demo­cratic pres­i­dent. It was the Re­li­gious Free­dom Restora­tion Act (RFRA), passed in or­der to pre­vent laws that in­fringe on a per­son’s free ex­er­cise of re­li­gion.

How­ever, in 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in City of Bo­erne v. Flores that Con-

gress had ex­ceeded its Four­teenth Amend­ment en­force­ment pow­ers by en­act­ing the fed­eral RFRA, and that the law doesn’t ap­ply to states and lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties.

Since then, 19 states have en­acted RFRAs of their own, with­out much con­tro­versy—un­til last year. As more and more same-sex mar­riage bans fell across the coun­try, broader ver­sions of the fed­eral RFRA ap­peared, set­ting off alarm bells within the LGBT com­mu­nity over con­cerns that the bills would al­low, for ex­am­ple, business own­ers to refuse ser­vice to LGBT peo­ple based on their re­li­gious be­liefs. Sup­port­ers of the bills claim they aren’t dis­crim­i­na­tory against the LGBT com­mu­nity.

Highly pub­li­cized bat­tles over such “re­li­gious free­dom” or “re­li­gious lib­erty” bills broke out in Ari­zona and here in Ge­or­gia last year, with the bills fail­ing in both in­stances thanks in no small part to wide­spread op­po­si­tion from the business com­mu­nity and LGBT com­mu­nity.

But the men be­hind Ge­or­gia’s bills, state Rep. Sam Teasley (R-Ma­ri­etta) and state Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Colum­bus), vowed to rein­tro­duce the bills in 2015. Rep. Teasley has done so with House Bill 29, and Sen. McKoon will any day now.

That’s what con­cerns LGBT ac­tivists like Jeff Gra­ham, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Ge­or­gia Equal­ity, who says Teasley’s HB 29 would al­low cor­po­ra­tions to ex­empt them­selves from any state law or lo­cal or­di­nance that they feel in­hibits their ex­pres­sion of re­li­gious views.

“The lan­guage that we have seen in House Bill 29 does not do any­thing to ad­dress the con­cerns we brought up in 2014 or have brought up as this de­bate has recom­menced here in Ge­or­gia,” he says.

Gra­ham be­lieves the bill is even more trou­ble­some this year be­cause he says it will al­low gov­ern­ment work­ers to claim a re­li­gious ex­emp­tion from hav­ing to do their du­ties.

“This opens the door to wide­spread dis­crim­i­na­tion to a whole host of peo­ple, not just the LGBT com­mu­nity,” he says, cit­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of a para­medic or po­lice of­fi­cer be­ing given the right to refuse to help some­one who is gay, or a sin­gle mother be­ing de­nied or kicked out of hous­ing by a land­lord who be­lieves only men should lead fam­i­lies.

Gra­ham says there’s a rel­a­tively easy fix to the LGBT dis­crim­i­na­tion con­cerns over the bill.

“They can make sure that there are pro­tec­tions against dis­crim­i­na­tion based on sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der iden­tity that per­haps could be built into this bill,” he says.

In the mean­time, Ge­or­gia Equal­ity has launched the Ge­or­gia Unites Against Dis­crim­i­na­tion cam­paign to fight the leg­is­la­tion. Shar­ing the group’s con­cerns is the pro­gres­sive po­lit­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion Bet­ter Ge­or­gia, which has gath­ered over 7,000 signed pe­ti­tions in protest of such “re­li­gious free­dom” leg­is­la­tion.

Bryan Long, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Bet­ter Ge­or­gia, calls them “re­li­gion as an ex­cuse” bills that would open the door to peo­ple us­ing their re­li­gion to opt out of laws con­cern­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion, child wel­fare or spousal abuse.

“This leg­is­la­tion would lead to le­gal chaos over whose re­li­gion is more im­por­tant in the eyes of our courts and law­mak­ers,” he says.

Long cites an in­ci­dent in Texas where a gay cou­ple, Ben Allen and Justin Hudgins, say they were turned down by a re­cep­tion venue be­cause they re­fused to host a same-sex wed­ding. Texas passed a state RFRA in 1999.

“It is be­cause of God that I will not be a part in your re­cep­tion, and I know he loves you, but not what you are do­ing,” All Oc­ca­sion Party Place em­ployee Robin Hearne is quoted by WFAA News 8 as hav­ing emailed Hudgins. “I sim­ply said I can­not rent to you which is also my right.”

BILL SUP­PORT­ERS DENY DIS­CRIM­I­NA­TION

McKoon says his bill is a re­ac­tion the Bo­erne decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997, and he claims there have been sev­eral in­stances of in­fringe­ment on re­li­gious lib­er­ties in Ge­or­gia, in­clud­ing the re­moval of Bi­bles from a com­mu­nity re­source sec­tion of a Ge­or­gia pub­lic li­brary and a Bi­ble study stu­dent or­ga­ni­za­tion be­ing de­nied the right to use school fa­cil­i­ties for vol­un­tary Bi­ble study in Banks County.

He also claims the bill will not re­sult in LGBT dis­crim­i­na­tion such as a business owner denying ser­vice to a gay or les­bian per­son based on their re­li­gious be­liefs.

“This bill will cover nat­u­ral per­sons only, so busi­nesses won’t be able to as­sert a RFRA claim,” he tells the GA Voice. “Even if they were able to as­sert a RFRA claim, the Supreme Court has found that the gov­ern­ment’s in­ter­est in pre­vent­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion qual­i­fies as a com­pelling state in­ter­est and so would over­come a RFRA ob­jec­tion in any case.”

Rep. Teasley claims his bill is nar­rowly tai­lored to ap­ply specif­i­cally to gov­ern­ment’s in­ter­ac­tions with in­di­vid­u­als, and that an un­named rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the LGBT com­mu­nity asked him to spec­ify as such. Teasley said he also added lan­guage to specif­i­cally de­fine “per­son” as a “nat­u­ral per­son.”

“Nowhere in the bill does it give aid and com­fort to any who would at­tempt to dis­crim­i­nate,” he says.

Vir­ginia Gal­loway, re­gional di­rec­tor for the Faith and Free­dom Coali­tion, led by Ralph Reed, the for­mer ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Christian Coali­tion, echoes McKoon and Teasley’s state­ments, say­ing, “That has been some­thing that had the bill spon­sors scratch­ing their heads from the get-go in what they con­sider con­fu­sion in the com­mu­nity.”

Both Teasley and Gal­loway cited an in­ci­dent at Savannah State Univer­sity in 2007, when a Christian club’s mem­ber­ship was

ter­mi­nated for a re­ported haz­ing in­ci­dent, which re­port­edly was a foot-wash­ing cer­e­mony mod­eled after the story of Je­sus Christ and his dis­ci­ples. The Al­liance De­fend­ing Free­dom filed suit on be­half of the club and the group was re­in­stated in 2008.

Teasley, Gal­loway and McKoon all stated the bills aren’t limited to Chris­tians, with each cit­ing that ob­ser­vant Jews who be­lieve a body ought not be dis­turbed after death would have a right to pre­vent an au­topsy from be­ing per­formed un­less there’s a com­pelling state in­ter­est to do so, as in cases of mur­der.

How­ever, gay ac­tivist Rob­bie Med­wed, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of Jewish LGBT or­ga­ni­za­tion SO­JOURN, says there’s a way to ad­dress this is­sue with­out tak­ing on the more prob­lem­atic is­sues with the bills.

“While HB 29 would help in cer­tain cases of avoid­ing un­wanted au­top­sies, the nega­tives far out­weigh the pos­i­tives, and the prob­lem of un­wanted au­top­sies could eas­ily be solved with an au­topsy-spe­cific bill,” he says.

UN­IN­TENDED CON­SE­QUENCES AND ‘EROTIC LIB­ERTY’

Les­bian state Rep. Si­mone Bell ( D-At­lanta) was at a re­cent House ses­sion when the preacher of the day, Rev. Bryant Wright of John­son Ferry Bap­tist Church, de­scribed LGBT equal­ity as “erotic lib­erty.”

She says Rep. Teasley came to her after- ward to apol­o­gize that that type of mes­sage came across.

“I ex­plained to him that this is the con­ver­sa­tion I’ve been hav­ing with him about un­in­tended con­se­quences,” she says. “So I un­der­stand that he may not feel that way, but he has given peo­ple a plat­form across the state to use his par­tic­u­lar bill to spread hate and dis­crim­i­na­tion.”

This in­cludes such noted anti-gay or­ga­ni­za­tions, in­clud­ing Ge­or­gia’s chap­ter of Con­ser­va­tive Women of Amer­ica. Tanya Ditty, the state di­rec­tor of CWA, tes­ti­fied in 2012 be­fore a House com­mit­tee against a bill that would pro­hibit dis­crim­i­na­tion against LGBT state em­ploy­ees. In that tes­ti­mony, she com­pared ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity to necrophilia, pe­dophilia and zoophilia.

But Bell said she’s against the bill more out of prac­ti­cal­ity than any other con­cern.

“My main ar­gu­ment against the bill is that it’s not needed,” she says. “They’re say­ing it fixes a prob­lem that does not ex­ist. We’re cre­at­ing a law to fix a prob­lem that doesn’t ex­ist.”

She also cites the eco­nomic im­pact, with cor­po­ra­tions and other business en­ti­ties not want­ing to do business in the state due to the bills.

Les­bian state Rep. Karla Dren­ner thinks Rep. Teasley has made im­prove­ments to the bill he pre­sented last year, but still has con­cerns.

“Leav­ing it as is, I think it opens up a whole can of worms for a lot of en­ti­ties in the state be­cause any­body can use RFRA as a de­fense against dis­ci­plin­ing em­ploy­ees who break the rules,” she says. “They can cite their re­li­gious be­liefs as a way not to do some­thing. So un­til things are more clearly de­fined, I think there are a lot of con­cerns.”

How­ever, she said some of her con­cerns would be al­le­vi­ated if Teasley were to in­clude pro­tec­tions against LGBT dis­crim­i­na­tion in the bill. And she too, like Rep. Bell, is trou­bled by the rhetoric fly­ing around the capi­tol as a re­sult of such bills.

“I have never heard some­thing called ‘erotic lib­erty’ and I think per­son­ally this is very sim­i­lar to the 2004 mar­riage fight in that the preach­ers of the day came and in­stead of giv­ing an ec­u­meni­cal ser­vice about ‘God is good’ and ‘be loving and kind to one another,’ this guy comes in with a clear pol­icy agenda,” she says.

“I do see this as a con­tin­ual po­ten­tial is­sue, that preach­ers will come in and talk about the [for­mer] fire chief as a mar­tyr and not in a way that is truth­ful,” Dren­ner added.

WHAT EX­ACTLY IS RE­LI­GIOUS FREE­DOM?

Even the Faith and Free­dom Coali­tion’s Gal­loway thinks Cochran’s fir­ing and the “re­li­gious free­dom” bills are sep­a­rate sit­u­a­tions.

“The Re­li­gious Free­dom and Restora­tion Act would not help him from a le­gal stand­point. His sit­u­a­tion is an em­ployee and em­ployer sit­u­a­tion which would be cov­ered by fed­eral law,” she says. “The RFRA would not have any bear­ing on his sit­u­a­tion one way or another.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean pro­po­nents of the bills won’t con­tinue mak­ing Cochran the face of the is­sue.

Mean­while, McKoon and Teasley will con­tinue to try to stem the tide of con­cerns em­a­nat­ing from the business com­mu­nity, who have largely con­demned the bills, fear­ing the eco­nomic im­pact.

Bell and Dren­ner are call­ing on cit­i­zens to lobby their legislators and tell them how the bills would im­pact their lives.

“We need to be vo­cal. We need to be pre­pared to show up at the capi­tol in crit­i­cal mass. We need to con­tinue to ed­u­cate our­selves on how th­ese par­tic­u­lar types of bills are be­ing filed across the coun­try so we make sure that our strat­egy is strong and can with­stand the op­po­si­tion,” says Bell.

Rev. Dun­can Teague, who re­cently joined Ge­or­gia Equal­ity as the group’s faith out­reach con­sul­tant, comes at the is­sue with a unique per­spec­tive as a gay man of faith.

“This is not about my right to wor­ship as a lib­eral re­li­gious Uni­tar­ian Univer­sal­ist. It’s not about my right to have my re­la­tion­ship sanc­tioned un­der the re­li­gious com­mu­nity that I’m a part of, the re­li­gious com­mu­nity that my hus­band is a part of. This is about some­one not lik­ing it and try­ing to come up with a way of stop­ping it,” he says.

“That doesn’t sound like re­li­gious free­dom.”

Gov. Nathan Deal is sworn in for a sec­ond term (top) and for­mer fire chief Kelvin Cochran prays with re­li­gious lead­ers fol­low­ing a rally in support of him at the Ge­or­gia State Capi­tol (bot­tom). (Pho­tos by Pa­trick Saun­ders)

Bishop Gar­land Hunt (cen­ter) and Rev. Michael Grif­fin (right), or­ga­niz­ers of the rally in support of Kelvin Cochran, lead a march from the Capi­tol to City Hall to de­liver pe­ti­tions de­mand­ing Cochran’s re­in­state­ment. (Photo by Pa­trick Saun­ders)

On­look­ers pray dur­ing the rally in support of Kelvin Cochran (top left), re­li­gious lead­ers cited Bi­ble pas­sages against the LGBT com­mu­nity through­out the rally (bot­tom left), and Cochran’s sup­port­ers march from the Capi­tol to City Hall (right). (Pho­tos by Pa­trick Saun­ders)

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