Georgia House announces LGBT-inclusive civil rights bill in wake of ‘religious freedom’ legislation

Two weeks after Sen. Lester Jackson (D-Savannah) introduced a comprehensive “Georgia Civil Rights Act” in the state Senate, the House officially introduced its rumored companion bill this afternoon.

House Bill 488, the full text of which was not yet available, was named to much applause during a gathering of legislators, LGBT activists and faith leaders in the Capitol Rotunda. HB 488 is sponsored by Rep. Stacey Evans (D-Smyrna), and comes out at the same time as House Resolution 404, which calls for the creation of a bipartisan study committee to examine the need for comprehensive civil rights in Georgia.

“I’m proud to stand with Rep. [Sam] Park and a number of my colleagues [with] bipartisan support, for a study committee to make sure we have comprehensive civil rights protections for all Georgians,” Evans said. “At the same time, some of us would like to move forward a little bit quicker. I’m also introducing, with some of my colleagues, a bill to create civil rights protections for all Georgians.”

Rev. Kim Sorrells, Georgia field organizer for Reconciling Ministries Network, said these are “a great effort to do something on the positive side of legislation.”

Responding to RFRA

HB 488 and HR 404 dropped days after Sen. Marty Harbin (R-Tyrone) introduced Senate Bill 233, a “religious freedom” bill. Sorrells was one of several faith leaders who spoke out at a press conference denouncing SB 233, where the two House pieces were later announced.

“Religious freedom is very near and dear to my heart as a pastor. I understand and empathize that people want that to be protected — but it’s not at risk,” they said.

Sorrells and Rev. Molly McGinnis, an associate pastor at Atlanta’s Central Presbyterian Church, both praised how Gov. Nathan Deal responded to proposed “religious freedom” bills in the past. Deal vetoed a sweeping RFRA bill last year, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported today that he planned to take a harder stance than initially thought against SB 233.

“I really want to applaud him for speaking honestly as a person of faith,” McGinnis said. “He is an active Christian here in Atlanta and does his work from a place of faith, and from that place he has come out and said that these kinds of bills are antithetical to religious freedom.”

SB 233 was called “bad fruit” by Rev. Kimberly Jackson, an Episcopal priest, and ACLU of Georgia Executive Director Andrea Young likened it to discriminatory laws she grew up around during the Jim Crow era.

“This is a bill, which although it seems relatively innocuous, has the ability to do a great deal of harm,” said Rabbi Josh Heller, president of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association. “This is a bill, which more than anything else, reminds me of pollen. Every year it shows up, causes us misery and then eventually gets washed down the drain. This bill is legislative pollen.”

Heller told the audience that there is a federal RFRA law because it is counter-balanced by civil rights laws, but Georgia is one of a handful of states without any such protections for its citizens, including those who are LGBT.

“As Christians, we have a long history of using our religion to perpetrate this idea that God loves some, but not others,” Rev. Jackson said. “Friends, my fellow Christians, we can get it right this time. We can stand against this deceptive and discriminatory bill.”