What may have seemed like a simple federal law passed back in 1993 to protect the religious freedoms of U.S. residents from having to do things against their sincerely held beliefs has rapidly evolved into the dog whistle of anti-LGBT discrimination of the 21st century.
You know dog whistles? Coded language that seems to be innocent on the surface but really has repugnant undertones that, if you are not paying attention, many don’t even notice. Like “traditional family values” to mean “same-sex marriage will lead to the destruction of our country’s foundation.” Of course you don’t sound like a horrible person when you say you support “traditional family values.” But really, you only support that because in today’s political climate it’s not as accepted (although you wouldn’t know it from some recent rallies by Christian extremists at the Georgia State Capitol) to say, “Gays have no right to get married and do not deserve full equality.”
Of course, the most famous example of the dog whistle proponent was Atlanta-born Lee Atwater, who served as a consultant to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and was also the chair of the Republican National Committee.
Here’s a video clip of his famous 1981 interview on the Southern Strategy on how Republicans can win racists without sounding racist. [Warning: graphic language]
So, now we have “religious freedom” bills being batted around in states all over the U.S. How can anyone believe that wanting "religious freedom" is a bad thing? It's the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, for God's sake.
State Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus), the sponsor of Georgia’s “religious freedom” bill, is a devout Catholic, and says there is no way his bill is meant to discriminate. I've talked to him and, honestly, I don't think he intends for this bill to discriminate. But his supporters, his backers, the people he puts in front of him to speak out in favor of it—they are a different story. They do not like LGBT people and while McKoon may reiterate that there are no known legal cases of discrimination in states with "religious freedom" bills recorded, I can almost guarantee that discrimination has occurred in many "RFRA" states against LGBT people. His bill is the dog whistle these religious extremists in Georgia have been listening for since marriage equality started becoming legal in in state after state after state and is now knocking on their state's door.
Why he refuses to include a specific amendment into his bill that would ensure there would be no discrimination, however, is indicative that he is searching to appease the far right of his party. That's unfortunate.
Numerous businesses and corporations and athletes and celebrities and more are finally speaking out at a rapid pace against the “religious freedom” bill that Gov. Mike Pence signed into law last week in Indiana. And all of them agree the bill does nothing more than open the door directly to discrimination, specifically against LGBT people.
It should be noted that Georgia's LGBT community already suffers from a lack of protections. There are many local municipalities, such as the city of Atlanta and Fulton County, that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And it's those laws and policies that may be out the door if SB 129 is passed by the legislature. But by and far, LGBT people in the Peach State are probably already discriminated against a great deal for being who they are, and as you move further outside the perimeter the perils LGBT people face are undeniable.
McKoon’s “religious freedom” bill, first introduced last year, is part of a national preemptive effort to give religious extremists the right to say they have the law on their side when they deny services or jobs or housing to LGBT people because their religious tells them homosexuality is a sin. You see, marriage equality is likely on the way, even to Georgia, and with marriage equality will come, we hope, more and more equality for LGBT residents. But we all know that laws protecting us doesn't mean discrimination won't continue to happen. Just look at the Civil Rights Act.
It’s unfortunate that Indiana’s businesses only reacted after the whistle had been blown. But at least what is happening there is raising the stakes higher here.
In Georgia, a few businesses have spoken out—MailChimp, the Atlanta Convention Visitors Bureau, the Georgia Association of Convention Bureaus, hotel industry organizations. But in this final week before sine die at the Gold Dome on April 2, it appears it will be up to us, the citizens, to continue to speak out and show up and stand up to the shrill anti-LGBT voices that want nothing more than for us to move away from our homes.
But, no, we won’t move away. Blow that whistle as hard as you can. It only makes us fight harder.