Back in Oct. 2015, I proudly boasted in an editorial that “our state hasn’t turned out to be as bigoted as many expected” following the June 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalized marriage equality nationwide. It appeared I’d spoken too soon until Gov. Deal announced his intent to veto House Bill 757 on March 28, thereby slightly redeeming the faith I’d lost in southern politics.
Since the beginning of the 2016 legislative session, Republican state lawmakers have been embroiled in an attempt to codify discrimination into law and to uphold the longstanding reputation of Georgia and the South as a hotbed for bigotry and discrimination. House Bill 757, or the Pastor Protection Act or the First Amendment Defense Act or the Free Exercise Protection Act, what ever name its authors decided to use as the bill worked its way through both chambers, once again placed Georgia in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons and threatened the economic prowess of the “Hollywood of the South,” not to mention some of the most vulnerable citizens in our state who do not have the luxury of being included as a protected class—those who identify as LGBT.
The Republican proponents of HB 757 wanted nothing more than to convince the public that this bill and their decades-long culture war against the LGBT community and any group or idea that didn’t align itself with a narrow Christian world view wouldn’t be subject to discrimination. In fact, their talking points suggested that so-called “religious freedom” legislation was a necessary compromise to protect both the LGBT community and people of faith (i.e. Christians—other faiths continue to remain an afterthought) with “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Make no mistake about it, HB 757 and other “religious freedom” legislation that has popped up across the country is a direct response to the success of the LGBT equality movement in America. When a large segment of society becomes accustomed to privilege, equality begins to feel like oppression. Contrary to what some Christians would have you believe, Christianity is not under attack, nor are gay and lesbian couples in active pursuit of bigoted ministers to officiate one of the most important events in their lives by forcing clergy to comply through court order. Fear and hy-pothetical ‘what if ’ scenarios are a tool of the right wing and a scare tactic that is increasingly being seen for exactly what it is by an evolving American populous. Sadly, southern lawmakers continue to cling to any possible remnant of the old South where women were seen and not heard, blacks knew their place and LGBT people were deeply closeted with no hopes of moving beyond second-class citizenship.
The good ol’ days of the South for white, heterosexual, Christian men and the horror for anyone else outside of what has proven in many ways to be a tainted trinity is over. Any attempt to halt cultural progress in Georgia or in any other state is certain to be met with fierce opposition.
I agree with lesbian state Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates), who during a recent press conference with other LGBT legislators opposing HB 757 said, “When we allow discrimination in any form we can no longer call ourselves free, because some of us are not. Freedom is an all-or-nothing principle. There are no shades of liberty.”
A decision by Gov. Deal to sign HB 757 into law would have not only been economically disastrous for our state, it would have reaffirmed our reputation as a place where there is no shortage of people of faith that publicly abhor sin, but consistently and hypocritically support hateful legislation as God’s will for his people. The obvious disconnect between the belief in Christian values and the failure of Georgia lawmakers and their constituents who support HB 757 to exemplify the spirit of Christ couldn’t be more glaring. It’s an observation Gov. Deal addressed during his veto speech to a political party that is determined to use the Bible instead of the Constitution to legislate.
“I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith based community in Georgia of which my family and I are a part of for all of our lives. Our actions on HB 757 are not just about protecting the faith-based community or providing a business-friendly climate for job growth in Georgia. This is about the character of our state and the character of its people,” said Deal.
Indeed. Today, I’m proud of Gov. Deal for making the right decision. However, the fight is not over on either side; we’re just getting started. But whatever happens next, we in the LGBT community must always champion freedom over discrimination, equality over bigotry and progress over stagnation.