Metro Weekly

LGBT advocates call on Deal to veto Georgia “religious freedom” bill

First Amendment Defense Act would provide license to discriminate by citing religious convictions

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (Photo: Office of the Governor).

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (Photo: Office of the Governor).

An alliance of pro-LGBT organizations submitted more than 75,000 email petitions to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R), asking him to veto a religious freedom bill making its way through the legislature.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), Lambda Legal, Georgia Equality and Georgia Unites Against Discrimination held a conference call with reporters calling upon Deal to show “true leadership” by vetoing the measure. Chad Griffin, the president of HRC, held up the example of South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who on Tuesday vetoed a bill that would have prohibited transgender students in all schools from using the bathroom consistent with their gender identity.

“Over the past few months, we’ve seen some legislators here in Georgia and organizations push for legislation that would open the door to discrimination against gay and transgender Georgians, unmarried couples, single parents and women,” said Jeff Graham, the executive director of Georgia Equality and Georgia Unites Against Discrimination. “Legal experts from across the political spectrum have confirmed that the dangers of these bills are very real.”

In total, Georgia lawmakers have introduced nine bills taking aim at the LGBT community, including HB757, an amended version of a “religious freedom” bill that would allow an individual or a business owner to cite a “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction” as justification for refusing service to LGBT people, same-sex couples or anybody who engages in extramarital relations, for example. The bill also prohibits the government from taking retaliatory action against a person who decides to discriminate based on their personal religious beliefs.

As part of their efforts to try and convince Deal and other Georgia lawmakers to stop the bill, Georgia Unites Against Discrimination has been organizing more than 300 clergy members to speak out against the bill, arguing that its religious exemptions go too far and do not reflect the opinion of the broader faith community. Additionally, more than 400 businesses have spoken against the bill in an attempt to persuade lawmakers that legislation that could be perceived as targeting the LGBT community could have negative ramifications for the Peach State’s economy, particularly if companies choose to move away from or decide not to relocate to Georgia.

Besides those arguments, and the more than 75,000 emails submitted to Deal’s office earlier today, LGBT advocates are also pointing to data collected by the Public Religion Research Institute showing that a majority of Georgians — and most sub-groups, except white evangelical protestants — oppose allowing businesses the right to refuse service to gay or lesbian people, even if the business owner claims doing so would violate his or her religious beliefs. Overall, 57 percent of Georgians oppose such broad religious exemptions, while only 37 support them. 

That same survey by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that nearly two-thirds of Georgians — 66 percent — support legislation that would affirm and extend statewide protections in employment, housing and public accommodations to the LGBT community. With that in mind, Simone Bell, Southern Regional Director for Lambda Legal, called on lawmakers to pass a comprehensive civil rights law that would extend such protections to the LGBT community. So far, the Republican-dominated legislature has either killed or bottled up in committee, measures that are viewed as LGBT-friendly.

“The only reasons why Georgia would not pass a civil rights bill that includes those protections would be a lack of political will and courage, and a refusal to stand on the right side of history,” Bell said. “Georgia, the world is watching.”

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com