Prominent Republican calls for LGB civil rights law in Georgia

Sam Olens – who once fought LGBTQ equality as Georgia attorney general – now says it's time for the state to adopt a civil rights law protecting lesbian, gay and bisexual people. He is one of the first prominent Republicans in the state to call for such legislation.

Olens made the comments during an Aug. 29 appearance on Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Political Rewind podcast. The panelists were discussing Republican gubernatorial nominee Brian Kemp’s vow that he would veto “religious freedom” legislation that goes beyond a version that’s been federal law since 1993.

Critics of such legislation point out that “religious freedom” legislation would discriminate against LGBTQ people since Georgia offers no statewide protections covering sexual orientation or gender identity.

Olens called for people to go “beyond politics” and pass both a “religious freedom” bill and one that would protect lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

“I happen to be one of those few Republicans that candidly thinks it is time for Georgia to pass some legislation that provides some additional benefits for individuals,” Olens said in his comments starting at the 13-minute mark. “And I think there’s actually the opportunity to bring both bills in at one time and to be beyond politics in this area.”

Olens noted that the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled in two cases that federal discrimination laws don’t include sexual orientation. He was referring to two cases from two Georgians – Jameka Evans and Gerald Bostock – who claimed in lawsuits that they were fired for being gay.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied Evans’ petition to hear her case in December 2017. The high court is currently considering whether to take up Bostock’s case.

Olens said on GPB that such a case will eventually make it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“You could argue it either way, because clearly in the ‘60s [when the federal civil rights law was passed], one wasn’t talking about sexual orientation,” he said. “But I think we as a country are at a point that people with different sexual orientations deserve to be protected.”

It is unclear if Olens is also in favor of such a law covering gender identity. Project Q Atlanta reached out to Olens for clarification and will update the post if he responds [see update below].

During his time as attorney general, Olens argued that gay marriage is not a "fundamental right" and refused to relent as the U.S. Supreme Court slowly nicked away at gay marriage prohibitions in several states. 

He later joined Gov. Nathan Deal in blasting federal guidelines in place at the time concerning the fair and equal treatment of transgender students. Then he joined several states in suing the federal government over the guidelines.

Olens was appointed president of Kennesaw State University in 2016, which led to protests from the school’s LGBTQ students. He defended those positions by saying they weren’t his personal opinions, and that he was doing his job as top lawyer for the state.

Olens resigned from Kennesaw State University in 2016 and is now an attorney in the Atlanta office of global law firm Dentons.

UPDATE | Olens told Project Q that he does support a public accomodations law that prohibits discrimination based on gender identity.

"As I am no longer the state's attorney general, I can express my personal views on many issues without concern of affecting litigation against the state," Olens said.

He said he was "pleased" see the introduction of House Bill 849 in 2016. The legislation would have prohibited discrimination in public accomodations. Attempts to include LGBTQ people under those protections failed and the bill did not pass.

"As I have stated numerous times, it is past time for Georgia to pass legislation banning additional forms of discrimination," Olens said. 

He noted that gender identity is protected under federal law due to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2011 in favor of Vandy Beth Glenn, the transgender woman fired from her job at the Georgia General Assembly due to her gender identity.

"Interestingly enough, sexual orientation is not as vigorously protected as gender identity," Olens added, referencing the Bostock case mentioned in the story above. 

"I support a public accommodations law that prohibits discrimination based on sex, gender identity or sexual orientation," he said.