2016 Gold Dome Pre­view

Crit­i­cal LGBT rights bills to dom­i­nate leg­isla­tive ses­sion

GA Voice - - FRONT PAGE - By PA­TRICK SAUNDERS psaun­ders@the­gavoice.com

Hold onto your hats, folks. A per­fect storm is brew­ing for the next leg­isla­tive ses­sion, fea­tur­ing round three of a so-called “re­li­gious free­dom” bill, a pos­si­ble back­lash to the U.S. Supreme Court de­ci­sion to le­gal­ize same-sex mar­riage, and the SEC pri­mary on March 1, when seven Southern states hold Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial pri­maries.

“Ev­ery sin­gle leg­isla­tive ses­sion has its own unique chal­lenges,” says Ge­or­gia Equal­ity (GE) Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Jeff Gra­ham. “We’ve got a lot of unique chal­lenges this com­ing year that frankly we’ve never seen be­fore.”

The new pri­mary is the brain­child of Ge­or­gia Sec­re­tary of State Brian Kemp, who by mov­ing up the pri­mary date makes Ge­or­gia a big­ger player in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial race. So ex­pect a ton of GOP can­di­date vis­its to the Peach State as the date ap­proaches, with re­li­gious free­dom and mar­riage equal­ity on the tips of their tongues and ready to make head­lines.

The pri­mary is also forc­ing many leg­is­la­tors to make this a short ses­sion, which means a flurry of bills in an even shorter amount of time than usual. We’re hear­ing that leg­is­la­tors are tar­get­ing an ad­journ­ment date of mid-March, a huge time crunch con­sid­er­ing the last ses­sion didn’t end un­til the first week of April.

The re­turn of RFRA

The num­ber one con­cern of LGBT activists this up­com­ing ses­sion will be the third go-round of a so-called “re­li­gious free­dom” bill, mod­eled in part on the fed­eral Re­li­gious Free­dom and Restora­tion Act (RFRA).

Last we heard of Sen. Josh McKoon’s (R-Colum­bus) Se­nate Bill 129, it had stalled in the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee in March af­ter for­mer Rep. Mike Ja­cobs (R-Brookhaven) in­tro­duced an anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion amend- ment to the bill. The amend­ment passed, the bill’s supporters tabled it and that’s where it re­mains, wait­ing to be ad­dressed again when the next ses­sion starts in Jan­uary.

Op­po­nents of the bill have latched onto state­ments by supporters that an anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion clause would “gut” it.

“In the last pub­lic com­ments they made it clear that what we had been say­ing all along is really true, that they were look­ing to find a ve­hi­cle to specif­i­cally be able to deny ser­vices to the LGBT com­mu­nity,” Gra­ham says.

How­ever, McKoon claims that the Ja­cobs amend­ment was not an anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion amend­ment.

“The Ja­cobs amend­ment and the de­bate around it, it was ob­vi­ously a poi­son pill amend­ment de­signed to make the bill mean­ing­less so that the bill can­not move for­ward,” he tells Ge­or­gia Voice.

Busi­ness com­mu­nity speaks up early

Both the Ge­or­gia Cham­ber of Commerce and Metro At­lanta Cham­ber of Commerce have voiced their sup­port for a RFRA bill only if it in­cludes anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion lan­guage, and both the Metro At­lanta Cham- ber and the At­lanta Con­ven­tion and Visi­tors Bureau (ACVB) pub­lished stud­ies show­ing a mas­sive eco­nomic hit should the leg­is­la­ture adopt a bill with­out it. How­ever, McKoon has been crit­i­cal of the stud­ies, say­ing the ques­tions were loaded and com­par­isons to a sim­i­lar bill in In­di­ana were in­ac­cu­rate.

Crit­ics of McKoon cite the fact that he’s head­ing into an elec­tion year—might he be spear­head­ing leg­is­la­tion like RFRA for the third straight year and an­other bill that would make English the of­fi­cial lan­guage of Ge­or­gia (even though it al­ready is) in or­der to fire up his base in ad­vance of next Novem­ber?

McKoon calls such no­tions “laugh­able,” say­ing there is a “sus­tained as­sault on re­li­gious free­dom that’s been go­ing on in our state for years and years” and notes how the crit­i­cism is per­sonal to him.

“Let me tell you what, I would have much rather not had the last six months of my mother’s life her read­ing in the news­pa­per about her son be­ing a bigot and her son hat­ing peo­ple. It was pretty un­pleas­ant,” he says.

Sen. Vin­cent Fort (D-At­lanta), les­bian Rep. Keisha Waites (D-At­lanta) and Shel­ley Rose, As­so­ciate Di­rec­tor of the Anti-Defama­tion League, con­firmed that the de­feat of RFRA would be a ma­jor fo­cus of theirs.

“Ev­ery sin­gle leg­isla­tive ses­sion has its own unique chal­lenges. We’ve got a lot of unique chal­lenges this com­ing year that frankly we’ve never seen be­fore.” —Ge­or­gia Equal­ity Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor

Jeff Gra­ham

But there will be one less LGBT voice un­der the Gold Dome to fight it next year af­ter the re­cent res­ig­na­tion of les­bian Rep. Si­mone Bell (D-At­lanta).

“Her loss will be huge and we will feel that,” says Waites. “She was very ac­tive and vo­cal dur­ing the con­ver­sa­tion and de­bate dur­ing RFRA. So Rep. Dren­ner and I will have to step up in an ex­tra­or­di­nary way.”

Ge­or­gia Equal­ity beefed up the pres­ence of faith lead­ers in op­po­si­tion to the bill this past ses­sion, a strat­egy Gra­ham says GE will con­tinue to use in the up­com­ing ses­sion. The group is also in talks with for­mer Ge­or­gia At­tor­ney Gen­eral Mike Bow­ers about re­turn­ing to pro­vide ad­di­tional le­gal anal­y­sis as he did last ses­sion.

Hate crimes leg­is­la­tion on the way

Ge­or­gia is one of only five states with­out hate crimes leg­is­la­tion, a fact that led the Anti-Defama­tion League to re­cently an­nounce a 50 States Against Hate Cam­paign to get that num­ber down to zero. But don’t ex­pect Ge­or­gia to come off that list this next ses­sion, says ADL’s Rose.

“I think to get some­thing passed this year would be very op­ti­mistic,” she tells Ge­or­gia Voice. “But the plan is on get­ting some­thing in­tro­duced, get a hear­ing and be­gin con­ver­sa­tion around that now with the leg­is­la­tors.”

Ge­or­gia Equal­ity is spread thin with the RFRA fight, but it will be work­ing closely with ADL on the cam­paign. How­ever, Gra- ham shares a sim­i­lar out­look with Rose on leg­is­la­tion pass­ing in 2016.

“Un­for­tu­nately, since there’s no Repub­li­can sup­port for it and we haven’t been able to get any hear­ings on it, I think we may need to start a bit from scratch on hate crimes,” Gra­ham says.

How­ever, Sen. Fort con­firms he will take up Se­nate Bill 47 again, a hate crimes bill that in­cludes sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der iden­tity. He also says he is meet­ing with fel­low mem­bers of the Ge­or­gia Leg­isla­tive Black Cau­cus to make a fi­nal de­ci­sion on which HIV/AIDS leg­is­la­tion they will tackle dur­ing the next ses­sion. The group in­tro­duced 10 pol­icy rec­om­men­da­tions on World AIDS Day and will work from that list to de­cide.

LGBT em­ploy­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion bill up for fourth time

In the mean­time, the ma­jor bit of of­fense LGBT lead­ers will be play­ing in­volves les­bian Rep. Karla Dren­ner’s (D-Avon­dale Es­tates) Fair Em­ploy­ment Prac­tices Act, which would pro­hibit dis­crim­i­na­tion against state employees on the ba­sis of sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der iden­tity. This will be the fourth go-round for FEPA, which failed to pass in the last ses­sion de­spite hav­ing 77 co-spon­sors, in­clud­ing 17 Repub­li­cans and 1 In­de­pen­dent. Rep. Dren­ner was un­avail­able for com­ment.

Gra­ham con­firms Ge­or­gia Equal­ity will be ac­tively in­volved in help­ing to pass the bill, which he says will help them read the tea leaves as to the fu­ture of hate crimes leg­is­la­tion.

“If we see ad­vance­ment on FEPA, that really is I think Repub­li­cans start­ing to test the wa­ters to see if they can really sup­port [hate crimes leg­is­la­tion] with­out ru­in­ing their po­lit­i­cal ca­reer,” he says.

But don’t ex­pect much more than that as far as pro-LGBT leg­is­la­tion this next ses­sion.

“I don’t think we will end up with any other piece of broader civil rights leg­is­la­tion that we’ll see in­tro­duced this next year,” Gra­ham says.

Gay ‘con­ver­sion ther­apy’ ban bill in­tro­duced

On Dec. 11, Rep. Waites pre-filed House Bill 716, which would out­law so-called gay “con­ver­sion ther­apy” for peo­ple un­der the age of 18. The prac­tice has been de­bunked and deemed harm­ful by most ma­jor med­i­cal, psy­chi­atric and psy­cho­log­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions. How­ever, the odds are long on the bill get­ting much trac­tion.

“Un­for­tu­nately it’s a very par­ti­san en­vi­ron­ment down there so it’s very dif­fi­cult to get any­thing done as a Demo­crat, specif­i­cally be­ing a ju­nior mem­ber,” Waites says.

Ge­or­gia Equal­ity’s Gra­ham adds, “It’s not one of the things that we’re ac­tively speak­ing on now. Not that it’s not an im­por­tant is­sue but we have a pretty hefty list, both de­fense and of­fense, that we’re work­ing with right now. There’s al­ways go­ing to be more need and a de­sire for more leg­is­la­tion than what we can re­al­is­ti­cally and fea­si­bly take on.”

Waites also says she is work­ing on lan­guage for and will re-in­tro­duce an anti-bul­ly­ing bill that will in­clude sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der iden­tity.

And it’s un­clear at this point if there will be any leg­is­la­tion filed as a back­lash to June’s mar­riage equal­ity de­ci­sion, al­though many would say the third RFRA fight is ev­i­dence of such. But LGBT activists and politi­cians are at the ready should any leg­is­la­tors at­tempt to make it “mar­riage light” for same­sex cou­ples in Ge­or­gia.

“We have not been able to ver­ify any­thing spe­cific,” says Gra­ham. “Noth­ing has been pre-filed. No one in the leg­is­la­ture is ac­tu­ally talk­ing about spe­cific leg­is­la­tion that they in­tend to file, so a lot of it is still out there in the po­lit­i­cal dis­course realm.”

(File photo)

Ge­or­gia Equal­ity Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Jeff Gra­ham says a so-called ‘re­li­gious free­dom’ bill will be their ma­jor fo­cus this ses­sion.

State Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Colum­bus) will try a third time to pass a so-called ‘re­li­gious free­dom’ bill this ses­sion. (File photo)

(Cour­tesy photo)

Les­bian state Rep. Keisha Waites (D-At­lanta) has pre-filed a bill that would ban so-called gay “con­ver­sion ther­apy” for peo­ple un­der 18.

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