LGBT discrimination takes center stage at Georgia ‘religious freedom’ bill debate

Anyone who’s kept an eye on the fight over the so-called ‘religious freedom’ bill over the past two legislative sessions is familiar with the way the soundbites have been delivered from both sides—in separate press conferences, in testimony to a committee, in one-on-one interviews in the press. Neither side has ever addressed the issue face-to-face in public, that was until a debate on the bill Wednesday evening in Midtown hosted by the American Constitution Society.

It was standing room only at the law offices of Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore as roughly 100 people watched Senate Bill 129’s author, state Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus), Georgia Equality executive director Jeff Graham, state Rep. Taylor Bennett (D-Brookhaven) and Emory University law professor Sasha Volokh debate the proposed legislation.

Volokh, Sen. McKoon and Rep. Bennett (Photo by Patrick Saunders)
Volokh, Sen. McKoon and Rep. Bennett (Photo by Patrick Saunders)

It occurred just hours after news broke that a coalition of universities and some of the biggest companies in the world had formed to combat discrimination. The group, called Georgia Prospers, asks companies to sign a pledge against discrimination based on race, sex, color, national origin, ethnicity, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity according to the AJC. The group expects companies that sign on to use that alliance as marketing during the RFRA battle throughout the session, which starts on Monday, Jan. 11.

On Wednesday evening, Sen. McKoon downplayed the effect the bill would have on the Georgia economy, sentiments not in line with the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, who have separately produced studies showing that Atlanta and the state could see a negative economic impact in the billions.

McKoon also disputed the repeated claims by opponents of the bill that its passage would lead to discrimination, saying that there had been no court decisions authorizing discrimination on the basis of RFRA since the federal version was signed into law in 1993.

“I would suggest to you that if the arguments have not succeeded in 22 years then year 23 will not be any different,” McKoon said.

Graham and Bennett hit back against that argument, saying the climate is different now that the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage last June.

“I think it’s something that you have to consider, that there are people out there that have an issue with that [ruling],” Bennett said, adding that people would use RFRA against LGBT people.

Volokh did not agree with the federal RFRA or the proposed Georgia version, saying that such legislation favors religious people over non-religious people, but downplayed the effect SB129 could have.

“I think that claims both in favor of and against RFRA have been vastly overblown,” Volokh said. “I don’t think a religious exemption regime is a great idea, but if you’re going to have one, I don’t think that RFRA is going to do a lot of harm.”

Georgia Equality executive director Jeff Graham (Photo by Patrick Saunders)
Georgia Equality executive director Jeff Graham (Photo by Patrick Saunders)

‘They don’t need a RFRA to discriminate against us’

Graham used the event as an opportunity to point out that there are no state or federal protections for Georgia’s LGBT community, saying, “If people want to discriminate against us, they can. They don’t need a RFRA to be able to discriminate against us.”

He added that although Atlanta and some other municipalities have protections, that “We feel that RFRA is the first shot across the bow here in Georgia—that the municipalities in which we do have protections, that those protections would be vulnerable if RFRA passed because it erodes it.”

Much has been made about the anti-gay rhetoric surrounding the bill, with a rally by supporters of the bill at the Capitol last March as a prime example. Bishop Wellington Boone of the Father’s House said of LGBT people, “How can they put pressure on you when they don’t even know what gender they are? You gays won’t stand before God—how can we let you stand before us?”

Moderator Greg Bluestein of the AJC asked McKoon directly about the tone of the conversation surrounding his bill.

“I do think that there are certainly a number of people that I would not characterize as leaders on either side of this debate who have engaged in that, but the only person I can control is sitting before you and so I’m doing the best I can,” he replied.

Graham took a look beyond SB129.

“I would rather us have a completely different process. I would rather us have a process about looking at how do we build, in the current environment, a comprehensive civil rights bill that protects people of faith as well as people of color, women, the disabled, veterans and yes, gay and transgender people,” he said to applause.