Anti-gay preacher, LGBT community prepare for back-to-back rallies at Georgia Capitol

What a difference a day makes. Lawmakers with offices on the east side of the Georgia State Capitol will have quite a show to watch across the street in Liberty Plaza in early February, as Georgia’s LGBT community and allies converge there for a rally against a slew of so-called “religious freedom” bills on Feb. 9, followed the very next day by a “prayer rally” in the same location headlined by evangelical preacher Franklin Graham that is expected to draw multiple GOP presidential candidates.

First up is the Rally To Stop LGBT Discrimination on Tuesday, Feb. 9 at 12 p.m., organized by bipartisan LGBT rights coalition Georgia Unites Against Discrimination, of which Georgia Equality is a member.

Liberty Plaza was the same place for a rally last March against "religious freedom" legislation. (File photo)
Liberty Plaza was the same place for a rally last March against “religious freedom” legislation. (File photo)

Last year when the group held a rally in Liberty Plaza, there was just one bill to rally against—state Sen. Josh McKoon’s (R-Columbus) state version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) (State Rep. Sam Teasley [R-Marietta] had given up efforts on his House version of the bill and vowed to focus on McKoon’s Senate version by that point).

This year, there’s six (count ’em, six) different so-called “religious freedom” bills currently under consideration in the state legislature that would have potentially troubling effects on the LGBT community. In addition to McKoon’s, there’s Rep. Kevin Tanner’s (R-Dawsonville) Pastor Protection Act, which solidifies something that’s already part of the law although some see parts of it as being too broad. Tanner’s also responsible for a bill that would allow businesses to cite religious beliefs in refusing services for same-sex weddings.

State Sen. Greg Kirk (R-Americus) has his First Amendment Defense Act, which would protect individuals, churches and businesses from same-sex marriage by prohibiting them from facing legal penalties and gutting LGBT non-discrimination ordinances across the state. However, Kirk says his bill will not allow court clerks to refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses—so it’s no Kim Davis bill, but it’s a whole lot of other things.

State Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) has introduced a House version of RFRA as well, and LGBT activists are expressing concern about another bill, the Georgia Student Religious Liberties Act, a bill introduced by state Rep. Billy Mitchell (D-Stone Mountain) that focuses on prayer in public schools. Constitutional scholar Anthony Kreis tells Georgia Voice that Mitchell’s bill raises “serious concerns about the ability of school administrators to enforce anti-bullying provisions.”

“For example, if a student wore an anti-LGBT themed t-shirt with religious undertones, would this bill shield the student? Are there other aspects of anti-bullying policies that would be potentially undermined? These are critical questions that need to be considered,” Kreis says.

Rev. Franklin Graham made numerous anti-LGBT statements to Focus on the Family Founder James Dobson last October. (Photo via Facebook)
Rev. Franklin Graham made numerous anti-LGBT statements to Focus on the Family Founder James Dobson last October. (Photo via Facebook)

Graham calls gay people ‘the enemy’ who want to ‘devour this nation’

The following day, it will be Rev. Franklin Graham’s turn to take to the plaza to rally in support of such bills as the six mentioned above.

Graham, the son of famed evangelical preacher Billy Graham, has been in the news recently for controversial comments he made in a talk last October with James Dobson, founder of the anti-LGBT hate group Focus on the Family. They only recently emerged when Dobson posted the audio of the conversation on his website, where Graham calls gay people “the enemy” who want to “devour our homes” and “devour this nation.”

He also warned against allowing gay children into Christian homes, saying, “We have allowed the enemy to come into our churches. I was talking to some Christians and they were talking about how they invited these gay children to come into their home and to come into the church and that they were wanting to influence them. And I thought to myself, they’re not going to influence those kids; those kids are going to influence those parent’s children.

“What happens is we think we can fight by smiling and being real nice and loving,” he continued. “We have to understand who the enemy is and what he wants to do. He wants to devour our homes. He wants to devour this nation and we have to be so careful who we let our kids hang out with. We have to be so careful who we let into the churches. You have immoral people who get into the churches and it begins to effect the others in the church and it is dangerous.”

He also lamented that “homosexuality is taught to be okay” in schools and “that is why I want to get the school boards back,” adding that he feels obligated to tell gay people that “you cannot stay gay and call yourself a Christian.”

Expect announcements in the coming weeks from GOP presidential candidates about making appearances at the rally. With Franklin Graham, the audience, the timing and the cameras there, it’s a ripe opportunity to shore up evangelical support as the candidates head into the SEC Primary on March 1.

Keep in mind that the New Hampshire primary will have occurred the previous day before the prayer rally and there’s not another primary until Feb. 20, so this one will be hard for many presidential candidates to pass up. Plus it’s an election year in the Georgia legislature, so expect local lawmakers to be in attendance as well.