State Sen. Lester Jackson (D-Savannah), flanked by fellow members of the Legislative Black Caucus, introduces Senate Bill 119: the Georgia Civil Rights Act. (Photo by Dallas Duncan)

‘Georgia Civil Rights Act’ prohibits discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation

Georgia is one step closer to equal rights for all its citizens, including those who are LGBT.

Today, the state Legislative Black Caucus gathered in the Coverdell building to officially introduce Senate Bill 119 — the Georgia Civil Rights Act.

“In 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King called for civil rights and protections that reach far beyond the color of our skin. He called for systematic and economic justice and it is in that spirit that we introduce Senate Bill 119,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Lester Jackson (D-Savannah).

Rep. Park Cannon (D-Atlanta), one of the state’s four openly LGBT legislators, praised SB 119, which comes almost a year after she started her time in office.

“[The bill] will provide a way for us to have a better conversation about how civil rights is inclusive of LGBTQ+ rights and how we’re working together here. I hope that this is a message that comes out from us to our constituents that we hear your concerns and we’re working hard to make sure that everyone is protected here in the state of Georgia,” Cannon said.

SB 119 creates full protections in public accommodations for people based on a number of factors, including gender identity, sex, sexual orientation, race, religion and national origin. It also puts in place a Public Accommodations Division, which will be charged with enforcing the law by investigating claims of discrimination and issuing fines. Jackson said violators will be fined $10,000 for the first offense, $25,000 for the second and $50,000 for the third, if the latter two offenses occur within certain time periods of the first.

The bill wasn’t necessarily spurred on by any particular incident, Jackson said, but rather, plenty of pubic comment.

“Georgia’s only one of three states [without such protections], and the other states are South Carolina and Mississippi. We don’t wanna — I’m not saying anything bad about those two other states, but we don’t want to be in that number. We’re better than that,” Jackson said. “What we do here may encourage South Carolina or Mississippi to get on board.”

He said the way laws are now, Georgians have “few protections against discrimination” compared to the average American, and even more so if they identify as LGBT.

“There are absolutely no protections for people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in the state of Georgia. Federal protections are very limited, and even those minimal protections at our federal government are likely to be endangered in coming years,” Jackson said.

He said it’s the state government’s responsibility to reinforce the idea that discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated in the Peach State.

“This is a discussion Georgians in general are ready to have and a discussion that over 350,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Georgians desperately need to have happen so that we know we are offered the same protections under the law that any other group currently enjoys,” said Jeff Graham, executive director for Georgia Equality. “There is a clear gap between some of the basic civil rights protections citizens are afforded here in Georgia versus other states. It’s time for Georgia lawmakers to address our state’s outdated protections and expand them to include commonsense protection for all Georgians from discrimination.”

Last year, legislators tried a similar measure that didn’t make it far. For 2017, a new strategy: there will be a companion bill issued in the House as well.

“This bill will go to judiciary and we’ve asked the chairman for a formal hearing so we can talk about rights and justice,” Jackson said, adding the committee seemed open to the discussion.

He said SB 119 is a response of sorts to the push for “religious freedom” bills that allow for certain religious groups and businesses to discriminate against those they feel do not live their same principles. The civil rights bill will protect all Georgians from any sort of workplace, public accommodation and housing discrimination.

SB 119 is thorough: each section of the Official Code of Georgia that offers protections is addressed, something that adds teeth, Jackson said. He said the law will serve as a message to Congress and the White House that Georgia won’t stand for discrimination against anyone, regardless of creed, color or gender.

“Civil rights has long been an important issue for this caucus and as the largest black caucus in the nation, we have a duty to fight for civil rights in every way possible and for every person possible,” said Rep. Erica Thomas (D-Austell). “We will not only continue to resist, but we will persist in the Georgia Civil Rights Act as pat of that commitment.”