On June 27, 2015, Georgia’s LGBT community awoke hoarse from screaming, wiped the sleep from their eyes, brushed a rainbow flag or two off their chests and made certain the previous day’s events weren’t a dream: it was true, marriage equality was the law of the land.
As the celebration continued for some, there were many both in and outside of the community that began preparing for the inevitable backlash. And oh, did it come.
“Every single legislative session has its own unique challenges,” Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham told Georgia Voice in the days leading up to this year’s legislative session. “We’ve got a lot of unique challenges this coming year that frankly we’ve never seen before.”
State Rep. Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville) came out of the gate fast by introducing two bills on Day Three of the session – one that would allow business owners to refuse service to same-sex couples on religious grounds, and one that would ensure no faith leader would be forced to perform a same-sex wedding. Despite some initial concerns about overly broad language in that second bill, it was deemed fairly innocuous, with that version of the bill passing unanimously in the House – even garnering a yes vote from lesbian state Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates). The number assigned to that bill? House Bill 757.
Little did Drenner and others know what that bill would turn into on Feb. 16, when it was combined with state Sen. Greg Kirk’s (R-Americus) state version of the federal First Amendment Defense Act, creating a hybrid anti-LGBT bill met with immediate backlash locally and across the nation.
Here are the players that stepped up over the following 41 days to kill the bill.
LGBT and Progressive Groups and Activists
Statewide LGBT advocacy organization Georgia Equality was front and center on fighting the bill, helping organize press conferences and rallies and speaking at various committee and subcommittee hearings on the bill. But a number of organizations throughout the state and the country took part in the fight alongside Georgia Equality, most under the umbrella of LGBT rights coalition Georgia Unites Against Discrimination, which was formed last year to counter state Sen. Josh McKoon’s (R-Columbus) “religious freedom” legislation Senate Bill 129.
A number of local and national LGBT groups signed onto a letter to Gov. Nathan Deal and leadership in the state Legislature urging them not to pass HB 757. The letter was signed by Georgia Equality, Georgia Unites Against Discrimination, Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, Equality Federation, American Unity Fund, Freedom For All Americans, National Center for Lesbian Rights, National Center for Transgender Equality and National LGBTQ Task Force.
And representatives from Georgia Unites Against Discrimination, Georgia Equality, Human Rights Campaign and Lambda Legal helped deliver 75,000 anti-HB 757 letters and emails to the governor’s office on March 2.
Other groups that joined in the fight included Better Georgia, Anti-Defamation League, ACLU, Georgia Republicans for the Future, GLAAD and the NAACP. And gay constitutional scholar Anthony Michael Kreis was a frequent presence in committee and subcommittee hearings speaking out against the bill.
Faith Leaders and Groups
Hundred of of faith leaders and faith groups spoke out in opposition to HB 757 throughout the session, disrupting any notions that the bill’s backers hoped people would have that all people of faith support the legislation.
Several faith leaders, including Rev. William Flippin of Emanuel Lutheran Church, Rabbi Joshua Heller of Congregation B’nai Torah. Rev. Josh Noblitt of Saint Mark United Methodist Church and Pastor Molly McGinnis of Central Presbyterian Church held a press conference in the Central Presbyterian courtyard on March 8 calling on Gov. Deal to veto the bill, with Heller calling the bill a “disaster” in its current form and adding, “It makes our faith into a bludgeon to beat up other people.” And SOJOURN was in the middle of the conversation throughout.
The Business Community
Both the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and Georgia Chamber of Commerce came out before the session started voicing their support for a “religious freedom” bill only if it included anti-discrimination language protecting the LGBT community. And the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau published separate studies showing an economic hit in the billions if the Legislature adopted a bill without it – foreshadowing the business backlash to come once the hybrid HB 757 bill was revealed.
Another business group that ended up playing a huge role in the bill’s defeat was Georgia Prospers, a coalition of over 300 businesses across the country formed in January and headed up by former state Senate majority leader Ronnie Chance, a Republican.
The Southern Sociological Society, an academic group with 1,200 members and a $650,000 investment in the state of Georgia, vowed to move its annual conference out of Atlanta if the bill passed. 373K, a gay-owned Decatur-based telecommunications company, said they’d relocate after Senate passed the hybrid bill. Brian Tolleson, the openly gay CEO of Atlanta-based digital entertainment company BARK BARK, spoke out in the media about the harm the bill would cause.
And Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff was a major critic of the legislation, going on CNBC to rail against the bill (he scrapped his company’s events from Indiana the previous year when a similar bill passed there). He later met with analysts to talk about scaling back operations in Atlanta as well, where the company employs several hundred people. And Benioff and McKoon faced off in several memorable Twitter exchanges in the days that followed.
On Feb. 26, the New York Times editorial board jumped into the fray, calling the bill “nothing more than a legal shield for discrimination.” Business leaders nationwide noticed, and many, including Dell founder and CEO Michael Dell, retweeted it. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, Unilever CEO Paul Polman and Microsoft President Brad Smith piled on from there.
Things snowballed from there, with Disney, Marvel, The Weinstein Company, Fox, Viacom, AMC, Starz, Lionsgate, Time Warner, CBS, NBCUniversal, Discovery and MGM all vowing to pull up stakes in Georgia if the bill passed, which would have been a major blow to the state’s constantly growing film and television industries.
The negative economic impact the bill could bring the state was quite likely the most influential argument against passing it.
LGBT and Democratic Lawmakers … Plus a Few Republicans
Lesbian state Reps. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates) and Keisha Waites (D-Atlanta) weren’t the only ones under the Gold Dome standing up against HB 757. They were joined throughout the fight by allies like state Sens. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta), Elena Parent (D-Atlanta), Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta) and state Reps. Taylor Bennett (D-Brookhaven) and Dee Dawkins-Haigler (D-Lithonia).
And queer state Rep. Park Cannon (D-Atlanta) voiced opposition to the bill throughout her campaign for the House District 58 seat she ended up winning on Feb. 17. Cannon was joined by Drenner, Waites, Bennett and Dawkins-Haigler at a March 21 press conference about opposition to the bill. And Mayor Kasim Reed issued a statement saying passage of the bill would “irreparably damage” the city of Atlanta’s economy.
And while the vast majority of Republicans supported the bill, there were detractors within the GOP, starting with Georgia Prospers leader Ronnie Chance.
Former Georgia Attorney General, federal prosecutor and US Justice Department official Joe Whitley submitted an analysis of the bill to Deal and House Speaker David Ralston on Feb. 25 saying it permits discrimination and denies equal protection of the laws and that the bill “would lead to real harm to many people.”
And 11 House Republicans voted against the bill in its final form.
But of course there was one more Republican whose voice carried the most weight in the fate of the bill.
Gov. Nathan Deal
If anyone who supported HB 757 was surprised that Gov. Nathan Deal ended up vetoing it, they shouldn’t have been. Deal made public comments on Feb. 29 warning lawmakers away, not only from discriminatory legislation, but any legislation that could be “perceived as discrimination.” Several days later he said he would reject any bill that “allows discrimination in our state in order to protect people of faith” and called on his fellow Republicans to “recognize that the world is changing around us.”
In comments in early March, Deal gave a teaser for the biblical argument against discrimination he ended up making when announcing his veto. Those comments drew a swarm of criticism from the religious right, with the anti-LGBT Family Research Council, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Georgia Baptist Mission Board and others bashing the governor (a Southern Baptist) in the following days.
Not to be forgotten: Deal’s comments laid out a roadmap for Republicans who wanted to come out against the bill but needed political – or in this case, biblical – cover to do so. However, it wasn’t enough to keep the bill from passing in the Senate on March 16 and hitting the governor’s desk for his signature.
It would take another 12 days for Deal to announce his decision: veto.
Community leaders, faith leaders, business leaders and political leaders can only do so much. But the fight gets taken to another level with the support of the masses. And the LGBT community and the community’s allies made their voices heard in a big way.
All of those LGBT rights groups wouldn’t have had anything to drop at the governor’s desk if those 75,000 emails and letters weren’t sent in. Tying up phone lines and inundating voicemail boxes with calls to legislators sticks out.
Political leaders wanting to (and wanting fellow legislators to) vote against the bill would have had an infinitely tougher time making their case if they looked out the window of the Capitol and saw only a handful of people rallying against it in Liberty Plaza – instead of the hundreds and hundreds who actually did show up.
Business leaders likely would not have stepped out in opposition to the bill if they hadn’t heard from so many of their employees concerned about its effects.
Faith leaders answer to a higher power, but they also couldn’t ignore the faces in front of them in their various congregations and temples.
And having the will of the people behind you is a good reason for a governor to veto a bill.
HB 757 isn’t the first and it won’t be the last effort to strip Georgia’s LGBT community of its rights. What remains to be seen is if that massive effort against it can be duplicated in the future.