Ge­or­gia Equal­ity open to ‘ap­pro­pri­ate’ religious ex­emp­tions

GA Voice - - Georgia News -

Last March, a bill passed in the Utah state leg­is­la­ture that banned dis­crim­i­na­tion in em­ploy­ment and hous­ing on the ba­sis of sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der iden­tity. But the bill ex­empted religious or­ga­ni­za­tions, their af­fil­i­ates and the Boy Scouts of Amer­ica from that piece of the law, and added pro­tec­tions for em­ploy­ees who talk about religious or moral be­liefs as long as the speech is rea­son­able and doesn’t reach the level of ha­rass­ment.

The bill was called the Utah Nondis­crim­i­na­tion and Religious Free­dom Act, but it quickly gained an al­ter­nate name through­out the na­tion—the “Utah Com­pro­mise.” And it hap­pened in a state where Repub­li­cans con­trol both cham­bers of the leg­is­la­ture by a wide mar­gin and oc­cupy the gov­er­nor’s man­sion, and in a state where a siz­able faith com­mu­nity rou­tinely plays a dom­i­nant role in the political realm. Sound fa­mil­iar?

At a time when the bat­tle to pass a so­called “religious free­dom” bill has en­tered its third year and newly pro­posed bills aim­ing to carve out religious ex­emp­tions at the ex­pense of the LGBT com­mu­nity are pop­ping up left and right, could the Utah Com­pro­mise clear a path through the ran­cor and give new pro­tec­tions to both the LGBT and faith com­mu­ni­ties in Ge­or­gia?

Stake­hold­ers can’t think ‘in ways that cause col­li­sion’

Robin Wil­son is a Univer­sity of Illinois law pro­fes­sor who worked with the Utah leg­is­la­ture to help the Utah Com­pro­mise get passed, and now she’s been trav­el­ing the coun­try spread­ing the good word about the bill.

She says she worked with both sides in Utah to get them to stop think­ing “in ways that cause col­li­sion.” For in­stance, if of­fi­cials were given the right to refuse to is­sue mar­riage li­censes to same-sex cou­ples based on their religious be­liefs, there had to be a mech­a­nism in place that as­sured that some­body is there to is­sue the li­cense so ev­ery­body has the abil­ity

Jan­uary 22, 2016

to get mar­ried no mat­ter where they live in the state. In other words, you don’t get the scene that took place in Rowan County in Ken­tucky last year, where a same-sex cou­ple was re­peat­edly turned down for a li­cense by the clerk-who-shall-not-be-named.

“I don’t think religious lib­erty and gay rights have to be in­ten­tioned,” Wil­son tells Ge­or­gia Voice. “But it re­quires en­ergy and ef­fort and in­put from stake­hold­ers from both sides and buy-ins, and that’s harder some­times than just crush­ing the other guy.”

Ge­or­gia Pros­pers and the Mor­mon Church

Wil­son says she see be­lieves there are times when the govern­ment “crushes religious peo­ple for no good rea­son” and doesn’t think bills like state Sen. Josh McKoon’s (R-Colum­bus) so-called “religious free­dom” bill will give religious peo­ple a ve­hi­cle to dis­crim­i­nate since there are no statewide pro­tec­tions for LGBT peo­ple in place in Ge­or­gia any­way.

She hasn’t spo­ken to leg­is­la­tors in Ge­or­gia about the Utah Com­pro­mise, but she says the for­ma­tion of coali­tions like Ge­or­gia Pros­pers is a good start to the con­ver­sa­tion. The coali­tion unites cor­po­ra­tions like Delta, Coca-Cola and Google with small busi­nesses, the Ge­or­gia Cham­ber of Com­merce and ho­tel and tourism as­so­ci­a­tions against laws that would dis­crim­i­nate against the LGBT com­mu­nity.

“When you get not just the big For­tune 500s but when you get the tourism bureau and mid-sized com­pa­nies and small com­pa­nies say­ing ‘this isn’t cor­rect,’ I think you have the kind of coun­ter­weight that’s go­ing to make things hap­pen,” she says, adding, “Much in some ways as the Mor­mon Church serves in Utah it­self, they’re a huge coun­ter­weight in that com­mu­nity. Well, so is busi­ness in Ge­or­gia.”

When told about the newly pro­posed and soon-to-be-pro­posed bills in Ge­or­gia like the Pas­tor’s Pro­tec­tion Act, plus a bill that would al­low busi­nesses to refuse ser­vice to same­sex cou­ples, and a state ver­sion of the First Amend­ment De­fense Act which would pro­tect lo­cal and state em­ploy­ees with religious ob­jec­tions to same-sex mar­riage, Wil­son says the decks are stacked too high on one side.

“My ba­sic po­si­tion is that both sides have to take some­thing off the ta­ble here. Ev­ery­thing you’ve just de­scribed are one-sided deals. They’re deals that are talk­ing only about the in­ter­ests of religious peo­ple, and some of them are ex­tremely broad,” she says.

Ge­or­gia Equal­ity ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Jeff Gra­ham says that they “re­main open to dis­cussing ap­pro­pri­ate religious ex­emp­tions” but that a big dif­fer­ence be­tween Ge­or­gia and Utah is that due to the in­flu­ence of the Mor­mon Church, Utah al­ready had broader religious ex­emp­tions on the books than most states or fed­eral law.

“The ba­sic prin­ci­ple to ask our­selves is whether or not mem­bers of the LGBT com­mu­nity should be treated dif­fer­ently than other groups that are cur­rently pro­tected un­der fed­eral civil rights laws,” Gra­ham says. “I would con­tend that there is no le­git­i­mate rea­son to cre­ate sep­a­rate religious ex­emp­tions for the LGBT com­mu­nity. That is one of the ma­jor rea­sons that the na­tional strat­egy has shifted from the Em­ploy­ment Nondis­crim­i­na­tion Act to the more com­pre­hen­sive Equal­ity Act.”

“Fur­ther­more, with le­gal prece­dent mov­ing in the di­rec­tion of rec­og­niz­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion based on sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der iden­tity as be­ing sim­i­lar to dis­crim­i­na­tion based on sex, to ac­cept broader religious ex­emp­tions as a ‘com­pro­mise’ runs the risk of set­ting the move­ment for fair­ness and equal­ity back.”

Per­haps tellingly, none of the Repub­li­can law­mak­ers we con­tacted for com­ment about this story re­sponded by press time. Wil­son re­mains op­ti­mistic.

“If it can hap­pen in Utah, the sin­gle most con­ser­va­tive state in Amer­ica, it can hap­pen in Ge­or­gia,” she says. “But it’s go­ing to re­quire a coali­tion of stake­hold­ers who want to see a good out­come and don’t see gay rights as be­ing in­ten­tioned with re­li­gion. Some­how you’re go­ing to have to take ac­count of that and give those folks as­sur­ances that none of this is at their ex­pense.”

By PA­TRICK SAUN­DERS

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