Georgia Equality and progressive allies went on the offensive, arguing that Georgia needs a statewide non-discrimination law and not another anti-LGBT "religious freedom" bill.
Georgia is one of a handful of states without any statewide civil rights protections. On Wednesday, Georgia Equality joined with Faith in Public Life, the Georgia NAACP and religious leaders to reframe the ongoing debate over "religious freedom" legislation and make the case for comprehensive civil rights protections.
The groups released "Liberty & Justice in Georgia," a report that argues for statewide protections for all people – LGBT and people of faith – in employment, housing, public accommodations and healthcare.
Francys Johnson (top photo), an attorney and president of the Georgia NAACP, said that although limited federal protections exist, state level protections are critical for better protecting people. Federal employment laws offer protections based on race, color, sex, religion, and national origin, leaving LGBT people without much recourse.
“As someone who practices in the civil rights area of the law, having only federal remedies presents a bar to people gaining access to courts. It is much more expensive to prosecute federal claims before the federal bench,” Johnson said.
Case in point: Connie Galloway was fired from her state job after 31 years after a supervisor told her that lesbians like her weren't welcome at the community mental health center where she worked. Jameka Evans said she was harassed and eventually fired from her job at Georgia Regional Hospital for being gay. Evans filed a federal lawsuit that reached the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in December.
Jeff Graham (second photo), executive director of Georgia Equality, said that Georgia is one of only three states without employment protections.
“There is a clear gap between some of the basic civil rights protections citizens are afforded in Georgia versus other states. It's time for Georgia lawmakers to address our state's outdated protections, and expand them to include commonsense protections for all Georgians from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations,” Graham said.
“Such a move would bring Georgia in-line with the vast majority of states across the nation,” he added.
LGBT activists have pushed to add protections to state law. State Rep. Karla Drenner, a Democrat and one of four LGBT state lawmakers, has introduced legislation to protect LGBT state employees but it hasn't gained traction despite bipartisan support. Sen. Hunter Hill, a Republican, offered the Fair Employment Practices Act in 2016. But when sexual orientation and gender identity were added as protected categories, the bill stalled in the Senate.
In February, House lawmakers also scuttled a broad civil rights measure when a panel voted down attempts to add LGBT protections to it.
'LGBT Georgians are extremely vulnerable'
On Wednesday, Joe Whitley – who wrote the executive summary of the report – stressed that "LGBT Georgians are extremely vulnerable today."
"Surveys show that nearly half of all LGBT Georgians report having workplace harassment or discrimination against them over the last twelve months,” Whitley said.
Whitley is a former U.S. Attorney for two Republican presidents and a top Homeland Security official for a third. Last year, Whitely picked apart the sweeping anti-LGBT House Bill 757 that Gov. Nathan Deal later vetoed. Whitley, a rumored GOP candidate for governor in 2018, was also in charge of a 10-person team of attorneys that investigated the Atlanta police raid of the Eagle.
The crux of the recommendations in "Liberty & Justice in Georgia" are that all people -- especially including LGBT people -- should be protected in housing, employment, and public accommodations.
Georgia legislators should join the vast majority of other states and enact comprehensive state protections for all Georgians in the exercise of fundamental endeavors such as employment, housing, and public accommodations.
Georgia state law should protect against discrimination in these areas based upon race, religion, color, national origin, physical or mental disability, medical condition, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, age, and military or veteran status.
The report also lays out recommendations to make sure, “Any religious exemption law in Georgia must protect places of worship while not legalizing discrimination more broadly.” These include adding clear non-discrimination language to any exemption laws, and urges legislators to “prevent passage of any legislation that has the purpose or effect of enabling or perpetuating discrimination against any individual, including LGBT persons.” Lawmakers behind "religious freedom" legislation have refused to add LGBT protections.
Loren Lapidus, a rabbi at the Temple, struck a hopeful tone about Georgia’s future during the press conference on Wednesday at the State Capitol.
“We can become a state that says that all are entitled to fair employment, fair housing, public accommodations, no matter their sexual orientation, gender, or any other basis for discrimination,” Lapidus said.
Graham said he anticipates that an LGBT-inclusive civil rights bill will be introduced in the coming weeks.