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Georgia religious freedom bill raises concerns

Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In the aftermath of a veto blocking enactment of an anti-trans bill in South Dakota, LGBT advocates are sounding the alarm over “religious freedom” legislation in Georgia seen to enable anti-LGBT discrimination.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, held a conference call with other LGBT advocates to draw attention to state lawmakers’ attempts to pass the bill, known as the First Amendment Defense Act, or HB 757.

“They’re using the rights and the lives of LGBT Georgians for their own political gain, attempting to enshrine discrimination into this state’s laws,” Griffin said.

Griffin added, “Make no mistake about it. There’s no religious freedom crisis in this country today. The First Amendment is alive and well. But there is a crisis of discrimination in this country against LGBT people. Today, LGBT people are still at risk of being fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes simply for who they are.”

Much the like “religious freedom” measure that ignited a firestorm in Indiana last year, the measure in Georgia never explicitly mentions LGBT people, but would allow taxpayer-funded organizations to discriminate and refuse services to both same-sex and unmarried couples as well as single parents.

Georgia has no state LGBT non-discrimination law, but the measure could undermine a future law or undercut city ordinances prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination.

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality and Georgia Unites, said the legislation would “open the door to discrimination against gay and transgender Georgians, unmarried couples, single parents and women.”

Last month, the Georgia Senate amended HB 757, which was a basic pastor protection act already passed by the House, to create a bill allowing taxpayer-funded organizations to refuse services to LGBT people. The bill has since returned to the House and could come up in that chamber at any time. Gov. Nathan Deal has said he doesn’t think HB 757 could become law without undergoing significant changes.

One development LGBT advocates announced on Wednesday was the delivery of emails from 75,000 Georgia residents urging Deal and lawmakers to reject the legislation.

Simone Bell, Lambda Legal’s southern regional director, said she’s “extremely disappointed” Georgia’s lawmakers have taken it upon themselves to pass a bill enabling anti-LGBT discrimination.

“This bill makes Georgia’s workers, families and others vulnerable to the whims of anyone claiming a religious reason,” Bell said. “This is wrong for Georgia. Freedom of religion is already strongly protected by federal and state law, and HB 757 goes too far.”

Instead of passing HB 757, LGBT advocates on the call urged Georgia lawmakers to enact a state prohibition on discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Although legislation against anti-LGBT discrimination has been introduced in both chambers of the Georgia Legislature, it’s not moving forward, which the LGBT advocates on the call attributed to political realities in the conservative state.

More than 400 businesses have spoken out against HB 757, including Salesforce, Dell, Microsoft, Porsche and the Atlanta Hawks. Just this week, Twitter signed on as a member of Georgia Prospers, a coalition of businesses opposed to the bill. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce said supporters are using religious freedom as a pretext for anti-LGBT discrimination.

Matt McTighe, executive director for Freedom for All Americans, said in a statement Georgia should reject the “religious freedom” bill.

“Bills like HB 757 are bad for a state’s economy and their brand,” McTighe said. “As conservatives in the state now join the growing calls for the legislature to reject this discriminatory bill, Gov. Deal and Speaker Ralston should make clear this bill has no path forward.”

According to recent polling from the Public Religion Research Institute, 57 percent of Georgia residents oppose the underlying intent of HB 757 to deny service to LGBT people based on religious beliefs.

But the Georgia bill is just one anti-LGBT bill pending in state legislatures this year. According to the Human Rights Campaign, nearly 200 such bills have been introduced this year or have carried over from last year’s legislative session in 32 states.

The onslaught of these bills had led to calls in the blogosphere and on Twitter for national LGBT groups like the Human Rights Campaign to produce a concrete national strategy that would lead to the defeat of these bills.

In response to a request from the Washington Blade to react to the calls to articulate a national strategy, Griffin spoke at length about the spectrum of the LGBT movement, such as progress on the federal Equality Act and passage of the non-discrimination ordinance in Charlotte, N.C.

“I would say that I have never seen this movement more unified in partnership, in collaboration, doing everything we can to ensure that we defeat the anti-LGBT bills as well as looking for legislative vehicles to accomplish and secure the protections of LGBT folks statewide in each of these states,” Griffin said.

Bell echoed Griffin’s comments, indicating a national strategy may not be the best route because different states are differently situated with respect to the bills.

“There’s not one way to do it, and you also have to keep in mind the political atmosphere across the country is very different,” Bell said. “That means what may work in one state and in one region may not work in the other. And so, as we’re thinking about these particular strategies, we have to be very creative.”

Asked by the Blade whether he sees value in producing a document or video outlining a national strategy, Griffin said he’s “incredibly confident that there is a national strategy” in place without such an articulation.

“There is no one video, or no one quick tweet that folks can see and say this is the grand plan that’s going to bring equality to all 50 states in this country,” Griffin said. “It is different community by community, and state by state, and that’s why in every single one of these instances — not just at the state level, but also at the local level as it relates to Charlotte, North Carolina, or as it relates to the strategy in Jacksonville, Florida, or, for that matter, as it relates to the strategy and campaign for non-discrimination in Pennsylvania. Those are different in each location. There are some components that obviously are similar in terms of business organizing, and faith organizing and grassroots organizing, but let me you, it is going to take all of us moving in coordination and collaboration on all of these fronts — the defensive as well as the offensive — on the local and state level, and the same goes for the national level.”