Statewide Democratic candidates vow to fight ‘religious freedom’ bills

Democratic candidates for statewide office denounced anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” bills and outlined plans to protect LGBTQ Georgians during an LGBTQ business summit on Friday. 

About 150 people attended Rise of the Rainbow Economy, an annual LGBT business summit hosted by the Atlanta Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor, also addressed the crowd before the event wrapped up with AGLCC's Fourth Friday Networking Night.

Moderator Jason Rae, affiliate relations director for the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, opened the panel by asking the candidates if they would support a statewide LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination law and whether they opposed anti-LGBTQ "religious freedom" bills. Secretary of State nominee John Barrow, Attorney General nominee Charlie Bailey, Insurance Commissioner nominee Janice Laws and Labor Commissioner nominee Richard Keatley all answered yes to both questions. Agriculture Secretary nominee Fred Swann arrived after the question was asked.

It was a notable moment for Barrow, who during a 2014 bid for reelection to Congress refused to co-sponsor the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The legislation would have prohibited employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Barrow was one of only eight Democrats in the U.S. House to refuse to sponsor the bill.

While the five-time Congressman did vote to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and voted for the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act, Barrow also voted to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act, leading him to often score on par with his Republican counterparts in Georgia on HRC’s Congressional Scorecard. He lost that election in 2014.

Friday’s AGLCC discussion was the second LGBTQ event Barrow has attended during the campaign, following his appearance earlier this month at Georgia Equality’s Evening for Equality gala. Keatley also attended the Georgia Equality event.

 

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“Religious freedom” bills came up again during an answer from Bailey on how he could support the state’s LGBTQ community in his role as attorney general. The former Fulton County Assistant District Attorney explained how the position of attorney general in Georgia is a more independent and powerful one than in other states. And he has a plan if a “religious freedom” bill becomes law and is later challenged in court.

“The great thing about this position and me is that I’ll just refuse to defend it,” Bailey said. “And not only will I refuse to defend it, I’ll instruct my assistant attorneys general to file amicus briefs on behalf of the plaintiffs that are challenging the constitutionality of the legislation.”

Bailey (second photo) also plans to weigh in on those and any other similar laws should he win in November.

“I can write a legal opinion about whatever I feel like when I wake up in the morning,” he said. “So, if there’s even discussion about any discriminatory laws, then I will write a legal opinion from the office of the attorney general as the official opinion of the state of Georgia saying that’s not what we do here.”

Abrams later singled Bailey out during a post-event photo-op, saying he would be “an extraordinary attorney general who can sue the Trump administration every Thursday.”

Rae referenced California’s Insurer Supplier Diversity Survey in a question to Laws. The survey requires the state’s insurance companies to report their procurement efforts with businesses owned by minorities, women, disabled veterans and LGBTQ people. It’s a model that has since spread to several other states.

“I would absolutely be willing to participate in innovative ideas that are already happening. So, that would be something that I would be willing to participate in,” Laws said. “Also we would start our own initiatives here in Georgia to assess diversity, what are some of the gaps that we’re experiencing here in our state to … take care of our insurance needs and make sure that all communities, including the LGBT community, are taken care of.”

Keatley said that as Labor Commissioner, he would form LGBTQ-inclusive advisory panels and make sure people are aware of a hotline they can use to report if they’ve been discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

He also said diversity would be a factor in filling positions within the agency.

“The fish stinks from the head,” Keatley said. “So if we can fix things at the top of the office and set the example, then things should eventually follow.”

The five statewide candidates also discussed opioid abuse, immigration and food deserts.

 

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Abrams (third photo) was making her second appearance at an AGLCC event during her campaign, after attending the organization's Fourth Friday Networking Night in January.

The former House Minority Leader talked about medical marijuana, homelessness, voter registration, prison reform and Medicaid expansion. She also said existing models like the NGLCC’s LGBTQ business enterprise certification should be expanded.

“These are communities that deserve investment because they serve populations that are too often left out of the economic conversation,” she said.

Abrams also said that passing comprehensive civil rights legislation will require incentives for GOP lawmakers to support it, and that the effort could take an entire two-year legislative session to make it happen.

“I do think that it’s possible because a lot of folks are paying attention to Georgia and paying attention to what’s happening and not’s happening,” she said. “When we can … lift up the fact that we might begin to start losing some films because Georgia isn’t doing the right thing, or we know that industries are choosing other states because we’re not doing the right thing, that puts pressure on everyone to do the right thing.”

Abrams’ appearance Friday followed her showcase speech at Georgia Equality’s Evening for Equality gala on June 16. On Saturday, she marched and gave a speech at the Augusta Pride festival.

Top photo clockwise from right: John Barrow, Janice Laws, Charlie Bailey, Fred Swann and Richard Keatley. Photos by Matt Hennie