Protection against Discrimination Next on Georgia’s LGBTQI Policy Agenda
With additional reporting by Matthew Charles Cardinale.
(APN) ATLANTA — 2015 was a watershed year for the LGBTQI equality movement in the U.S., with the ruling of the Supreme Court of the U.S. in favor of same-sex marriage as a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution.
But LGBTQI advocates lament that the State of Georgia has a long way to go in providing basic protections from discrimination in the workplace. This promises to be an area of focus when the Legislature returns in January 2016.
Meanwhile, Georgia is still without a hate crime law, and advocates also expect the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to return.
REP. DRENNER’S EMPLOYMENT DISCRIMINATION BILL
State Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates) has a bill to limit employment discrimination based on “a person’s actual or perceived” sexual orientation or gender identity in the public sector.
“As the legislators go back to session in January, we’re going to find out what the repercussions are going to be with regards to marriage,” Rep. Drenner said, expressing uncertainty about the impact of “a lot of new members,” as well on the 2016 session and her fair employment bill.
Drenner’s bill, HB 323, already has 79 signatures, with Rep. Drenner telling Atlanta Progressive News, “The House leadership has been very supportive.”
Encouragingly, the second signer on the bill, State Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs), is also the Chairman of the House Judiciary committee, to which the bill has been assigned.
“The bill is in Committee… I am interested in pushing it forward; however, we got sidetracked last year with the religious freedom bill,” Rep. Drenner said, a problem that will likely recur.
Drenner’s Fair Employment Practices Act “has been one of our top legislative priorities, and we are going to continue to push for that in the hopes that we can get this through the Legislature in the next couple of years,” Jeff Graham, Executive Director of Georgia Equality, told APN.
HATE CRIME LEGISLATION
Hate crime legislation is also going to be a target, as Georgia is currently one of only five U.S. states with absolutely no hate crime laws on the books for any protected classes.
Local organizations Georgia Equality and SOJOURN (Southern Jewish Resource Network for Sexual and Gender Diversity) are involved in building support for future hate crimes legislation that will cover a broad range of groups.
“There are still entirely too many states without these laws, and there are five states with no [hate crime] laws of any kind,” Robbie Medwed, Assistant Director at SOJOURN, told APN.
Medwed “would hope a bipartisan group” is able to support a bill, he said.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is spearheading a national campaign called 50 States Against Hate, and is involved in the efforts in Georgia to introduce anti-hate crimes legislation.
“We are still in discussion with several different [legislatures], specifically Republicans, to introduce the legislation,” Mark Moskowitz, Southeast Regional Director for ADL, told APN.
The ADL is also targeting law enforcement agencies in Georgia to support the legislation.
Law enforcement folks are “not prepared to go public with their support,” but they are working with ADL behind the scenes, “encouraging members of the legislature,” according to Moskowitz.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) is expected to return in 2016, for the third year.
Two separate RFRA bills, one sponsored by State Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus) and another slightly different version, sponsored by State Rep. Sam Teasley (R-Marietta), will carry-over from this year.
McKoon’s version passed the Senate, but ultimately stalled in the House Judiciary committee.
McKoon has repeatedly stated he will reintroduce the bill in 2016, without the amendment clarifying that anti-discrimination measures are, indeed, a “compelling governmental interest.”
McKoon’s bill was amended towards the end of the 2015 Legislative Session by then-State Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Brookhaven) to include language clarifying that: “Courts have consistently held that government has a fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating discrimination.”
Jacobs left the legislature in May 2015 to take a position as Judge of the DeKalb County State Court.
“Since Georgia is one of a few states that doesn’t have any statewide civil rights legislation, period, Georgia is especially vulnerable to even the weakest of RFRA’s,” Graham said.
“Our basic strategy is going to continue to focus on mobilizing not just the usual allies… but continue to make sure that child welfare organizations, that their voices and their concerns are heard on this, that the concerns of the majority of Georgians get heard on this,” Graham said.
Contrary to many reports, nowhere in RFRA does it specifically state that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation will be allowed in situations where people’s religious beliefs conflict with state laws against discrimination.
Instead, RFRA would purport to change the standard that a court would use to decide the outcome in any cases where someone’s religious beliefs conflict with any state law. The new standard would be that the State of Georgia had to have a compelling government interest in enacting that law in the first place.
If RFRA were passed, it is not clear if the courts would accept the Legislature telling it how to interpret the law; and if it did, it is not clear how courts would interpret RFRA in cases involving employment discrimination in Georgia, especially seeing as how Georgia does not even have protection against employment discrimination (see above).
However, just to preempt such an interpretation of such a case by Georgia courts–that people’s religious freedoms outweigh the State’s interests in eradicating discrimination–earlier this year, 2015, a coalition of State Representatives, including three moderate Republicans, forced an amendment to clarify that eradicating discrimination is a “fundamental” government interest.
By prefering to table the discussion altogether, rather than to proceed on the version of the bill that contained the amendment, Republicans in the House appear to have revealed their intent to promote discrimination.
Perhaps, though, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, more House Republicans will realize that something is wrong and behind the times in Georgia when same-sex couples can legally marry, but LGBTQI Georgians still lack access to fair housing, and have no protections from discrimination in employment.