Gay Atlanta rallied at the State Capitol on Tuesday to deliver a resounding "thank you" to Gov. Nathan Deal for vetoing an anti-gay "religious freedom" bill.

"Today is a good day for all communities that worry about discrimination in our state and today is especially a good day for those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender," said Jeff Graham (second photo), executive director of Georgia Equality and Georgians United Against Discrimination.

"It is a good day because thankfully Gov. Deal showed the leadership and conviction to say no to harmful legislation that would have opened the doors and could have been used as a license to discriminate against many Georgians but specifically those of us in the LGBT community," he added.

The victory rally was a moment months in the making. Deal vetoed House Bill 757 on March 28 after a national backlash that threatened the state's economy. Lawmakers passed the legislation on March 16 to allow faith-based agencies and others to discriminate against LGBT people. Critics called it "a license to discriminate." The legislation was a combination of bills that surfaced as soon as the legislative session opened in January.

Since the veto, conservative religious lawmakers and activists have blistered Deal, criticized him some more and called for a special session so legislators can overturn it. But GOP leaders in the State Capitol quashed that effort last week.

A crowd of about 300 LGBT people and progressive supporters rallied on Tuesday at Liberty Plaza, which sits across from the State Capitol. Organizers said it served several purposes – celebrate Deal's veto; thank supporters, faith leaders and businesses that lobbied against the legislation; and provide a call to action for LGBT people. Lawmakers have promised that "religious freedom" legislation will return in 2017.

"The governor's decision sends a message that the Georgia government will not sanction or support discrimination," said Mark Moskowitz, director the Anti-Defamation League's Southeast Regional Office in Atlanta. "Now we need to get the legislature to embrace comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation and hate crime legislation to convey the message that Georgia is a state of inclusivity."

LGBT and progressive activists pushed for the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in a proposed civil rights bill during the legislative session but were rebuffed by conservative lawmakers. 

Graham said LGBT groups will again push for the legislation in 2017.

"Creating civil rights legislation that protects all Georgians – that is when we can rest knowing that the laws of Georgia finally begin to reflect the values that all Georgians hold near and dear," he said.

'It is a good day'

 

Simone Bell, a lesbian and former Georgia lawmaker, said that Deal's veto gave LGBT people in the state a reason to celebrate – finally. 

"It is not often that the LGBT community can come here in celebration rather than protesting," said Bell, who is now director of Lambda Legal's Southern Regional Office in Atlanta. "We beat back this bill in Georgia. Not in the City of Atlanta where people expect progressive ideas but in the entire state of Georgia and it is because of the work you all did."

"I want to thank Gov. Deal for standing up to his party, particularly to the fringe of his party who are manufacturing fear," she added. "When we fight, we win. We all fought on this and we won."

Ames Simmons, a transgender board member of the Human Rights Campaign, said the grassroots effort helped defeat the legislation. HRC efforts included phone banks that logged more than 16,000 calls, petition efforts that generated 30,000 emails to Deal – some that came through Grindr – and providing a field director to coordinate the work. In early March, Georgia Equality, HRC and other LGBT groups delivered more than 75,000 emails to Deal expressing their disgust with the anti-gay legislation.

"We know that religious liberty does not have to mean dark ages religious policy, " Simmons said. "While today we celebrate, after we leave here the work continues."

Rebecca Stapel-Wax, executive director of LGBT Jewish education and outreach organization SOJOURN, said lawmakers forgot a simple rule – treat others as you want to be treated. She called the legislation "punitive" and said it will return next year.

"It is certain that this fight will come again. We have fended them off but we cannot rest. We may get weary but we have each other," Stapel-Wax said.

Rev. William Flippin, third vice president for the Georgia NAACP, said Deal "did the right thing" by vetoing the legislation.

"This has been framed as religious interest versus business interest. That is not the whole story. This was a moral decision not a political one," Flippin said. "We cannot stand by and let discrimination call itself religious freedom. I am grateful that our governor feels the same way and that he took the stance not as a politician but as a Christian."