Gold Dome battles
Legal protections neede for LGBT Georgians.
The biggest sticking point raised in Georgia’s latest fight over a so-called “religious freedom” bill was the possibility that passage of the bill would lead to more LGBT discrimination, with the most often-cited example being a business owner denying service to someone based on the business owner’s religious beliefs.
Lost in the shuffle of the constant backand-forth arguments, the press conferences, the rallies, the hearings, and the inflamed rhetoric was a simple fact—it’s already legal to discriminate under state law.
“That is true,” says Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality. “The one big caveat to that is that we have a broad ordinance here in the city of Atlanta and then there are other ordinances and policies passed by 59 other municipalities across the state that offer lesser protections.”
It’s one of the only things Graham and state Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus) seem to agree on concerning the issue. McKoon’s religious freedom bill, SB 129, failed to pass in this year’s legislative session. The bill had passed in the Senate, had momentum and appeared to be on the verge of reaching a vote on the House floor when state Sen. Mike Jacobs (R-Brookhaven) introduced an anti-discrimination amendment during a March 26 House Judiciary Committee hearing.
The amendment passed 9 to 8, with Rep. Jay Powell (R-Camilla) and Rep. Beth Beskin (R-Atlanta) joining all six Democrats on the committee voting in favor. Supporters of the bill warned that such an amendment would “gut” the bill, and it never recovered.
But in the days following the end of the session, McKoon started hinting in various interviews about a way around the issue— have the debate over discrimination, but do it in a separate bill, i.e. a statewide nondiscrimination bill offering sexual orientation and gender identity protections.
“I think that is a fundamentally different debate,” McKoon, who refused to discuss the matter with the Georgia Voice, said on WABE 90.1 FM on April 13. “I think that one of the objectives of the opposition to this bill has been to create confusion about this issue to then leverage it to try to get us to talk about that issue. There are 236 members of the Georgia General Assembly. I am delighted for us to have a debate and discussion on that issue if any one of them wants to introduce that bill. That has not happened yet.”
But what would such a bill look like?
The ‘big three’ areas of protection
The strongest nondiscrimination bill would include protections in these “big three” areas—employment, housing and public accommodations.
“Certainly those are the three big areas of concern when it comes to discrimination that need to be addressed before we would feel comfortable with passing some sort of religious freedom bill. That’s what we’re lacking here in Georgia is any mention of state level civil rights,” Graham says. How- ever, he notes, “The legislative session just ended a week ago, so we want to move forward thoughtfully at this point in time.”
Graham also pointed out that there are no protected classes under state law, so an effort of this magnitude would require a broad coalition of communities to come together to pass a bill that protected all of them.
Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, says he’s ready to talk about a statewide nondiscrimination bill that covers one peg out of those “big three.”
“We do not have in Georgia what we call a public accommodations law, we have the federal law,” he tells the Georgia Voice. “I think that would be something we could address that might do that. That would be a high hurdle to get over in one session but we could see.”
Failure of Drenner’s bill doesn’t bode well for all-inclusive bill
Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates) knows a thing or two—or three—about trying to pass a statewide nondiscrimination bill. She tried and failed to pass her Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA) for the third time in this year’s legislative session.
Drenner’s bill would have prohibited discrimination against state employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. This year’s bill had the strongest chance yet of passing, with 77 co-sponsors, including 19 Republicans.
She doesn’t buy the talk about an all-encompassing statewide nondiscrimination bill. “I think that’s just a red herring,” she says. Willard reveals that FEPA, of which he was a co-sponsor, nearly had an alternative route through the House.
“We considered tying that provision onto the religious freedom bill,” he says. “It was only a possibility if it got the chance for the bill to move out of the House committee to the Rules Committee. But we felt it didn’t have support to get through.”
Beskin, who placed a big target on her back by voting to pass that nondiscrimination amendment in McKoon’s religious freedom bill, stands by her vote.
“I believe that this is a very divisive issue and that many groups believe that RFRA would have a discriminatory effect if not a discriminatory purpose,” she says. “I believe unless we can come up with nondiscrimina-
“We play defense a lot and considering the current environment in which we find ourselves, our defensive wins are our wins.”
—Rep. Karla Drenner
Georgia Equality executive director Jeff Graham hopes that people put into perspective what occurred during this year’s legislative session. (Photo by Patrick Saunders)