Community rallies to celebrate veto of anti-gay Georgia ‘religious freedom’ bill [PHOTOS]

Over 300 people gathered in Liberty Plaza next door to the Georgia Capitol on Tuesday afternoon to celebrate Gov. Nathan Deal’s veto of the anti-LGBT House Bill 757 and call for LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination protections.

“Today is a good day in our state and today is especially a good day for those of us who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender,” said Jeff Graham, leader of Georgia Equality and LGBT rights coalition Georgia Unites Against Discrimination, who hosted the rally. “It is a good day because thankfully Gov. Deal showed the leadership and the conviction to say no to harmful legislation that would have opened the doors and could have been used as a license to discriminate against many Georgians, but very specifically those of us in the LGBT community.”

Speakers not only celebrated the governor’s veto of HB 757 but warned of similar legislation returning next year and called on the state to enact comprehensive anti-discrimination laws

“We know that this is coming back in 2017, so I look forward to us being back again a year from today to celebrate not only defeating other attempts but to move the ball forward,” said Mark Moskowitz, southern regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. “In 2017, we need to push the Georgia General Assembly to embrace a comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation and a hate crimes legislation all designed to convey the message that Georgia is a place of inclusivity and that the best and most attractive talent will want to come here and live here.”

Former state Rep. Simone Bell, who is now southern regional director for Lambda Legal, noted the prevalence of similar legislation across the South and the unique circumstances at play in the region. Her comments were all the more notable since, almost at the same time Bell was speaking, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant was tweeting that he had signed that state’s anti-LGBT “religious freedom” legislation into law.

“Georgia has set a precedent that we can do this work in the South. We can win this. We don’t have to look to other states outside of our region to know how to do this work. It is nuanced,” Bell said. “It’s easy to fight a religious freedom bill when you don’t live in the Bible Belt where religion dictates almost every law that is passed. But we’re going to stand with North Carolina, we’re going to stand with our brothers and sisters in Mississippi, and we’re going to let the entire world know that no matter what they think, the South is a place where we can live, we can have families, we can have jobs, but most importantly we can be who we were created to be.”

Several state legislators came out for the rally, including Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates), Rep. Keisha Waites (D-Atlanta), Rep. Park Cannon (D-Atlanta)—the only three openly LGBT state legislators—and ally Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta). And Josh Noblitt, Rafer Johnson and Bob Gibeling—three of the openly gay candidates running for the legislature this year—were also spotted in the audience.

Other speakers included Maggie Garrett of Americans United for the Separation of Church & State, Ames Simmons of the Human Rights Campaign, Rev. William Flippin of the Georgia NAACP, Ronald Cato of Georgia Republicans for the Future, and Rebecca Stapel-Wax of SOJOURN.

The governor announced his veto of the bill in a March 28 press conference, saying the bill “may encourage or allow discrimination sanctioned by the state” and that the religious aspects of it are already protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The bill would have allowed faith-based organizations (including churches, religious schools or associations) to deny people the rental or any usage of its facilities for events it finds “objectionable.” Also these faith-based organizations would have not been required to provide social, educational or charitable services “that violate such faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious belief.” And they would have been allowed to deny employment and fire those whose “religious beliefs or practices or lack of either are not in accord with the faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious belief.”

Also, the revised bill included much of the language of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which requires government to prove a “compelling governmental interest” before it interferes with a person’s exercise of religion. There was a provision added that said it cannot be used to allow “discrimination on any grounds prohibited by federal or state law” but there are no federal or state laws that expressly protect Georgia’s LGBT community against discrimination.

Republican lawmakers had threatened to call a special session of the legislature to attempt to override the governor’s veto, but House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle recently put that notion to rest—although both signaled the return of similar legislation next year.

Bell had a message for the audience in reference to that return, saying, “The race is not given to the swift or the battle to the strong, but it is given to those who are able to endure and hold out until the end. It is not yet the end. Put your boots on. Put your bandannas on. Get your stories ready. Talk to your friends, your family, talk to the strangers—because we’re not backing off.”

Here’s our photo gallery from the rally: