The top Democrat in the Georgia House said it's time for lawmakers to pass a statewide civil rights bill and that it should include protections for LGBTQ people.
State Rep. Stacey Abrams, the House Minority Leader, argued that LGBTQ people are "extraordinarily vulnerable" in Georgia and are not among protected categories in federal law. So state lawmakers should pass a public accommodations bill that includes them in a list of protected categories of people, she said.
The comments from Abrams (photo) came Wednesday in an interview with WABE's Denis O'Hayer. When he asked Abrams if gender identity or sexual orientation should be left out of a bill so it would pass a Republican-controlled General Assembly, Abrams quickly rejected the idea.
"Are you willing to leave sex out of the list of protections in order to get a statewide civil rights bill?"
The issue surfaced in February as House lawmakers considered the Georgia Civil Rights in Public Accommodations Act. The measure was proposed by state Rep. Rich Golick, a Cobb Republican, and would have prohibited businesses including hotels, restaurants, gas stations and entertainment venues from turning away customers based on their race, color, religion or national origin. The measure had bipartisan support, including co-sponsors Abrams and state Rep. Karla Drenner, the longest-serving openly gay lawmaker in the state.
Republicans twice fought back efforts to include LGBT protections in the bill – including stacking a committee vote with lawmakers who weren't members of the panel. The House Judiciary Committee eventually passed the bill after approving an amendment from state Rep. Beth Beskin to add sex to the list of protected categories.
Concerned that amendment could open the door to the bill protecting LGBT people, the measure stalled and never came up for a vote by the full House. Instead, GOP lawmakers approved a sweeping anti-gay measure that generated national blowback and was stopped only when Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed it in March.
Abrams told WABE that including LGBT people is a must for civil rights legislation in Georgia.
"If we are going to extend and protect civil rights in the state of Georgia in 2017, we should cover every group that is vulnerable to discrimination and Georgia has demonstrated that there is an extraordinary vulnerability for people based on their sexual identification," Abrams said.
Abrams also rejected the idea that lawmakers should pass a civil rights bill first, then go back later and add protected categories for gender identity and sexual orientation.
"Normally I think that that type of incrementalism is actually helpful. In this case, there are sufficient federal laws to cover most of the groups that would be vulnerable and exposed, which is one of the reasons Georgia has been allowed to not take action," Abrams said.
"But I think to refuse to take action when it comes to the LGBTQ community is dangerous and wrongheaded, and what it does is sends a signal that we do not believe that that community deserves the protection of our laws," she added.
In March, Abrams denounced House Bill 757 – the anti-LGBT legislation later vetoed by Deal – as a gateway to discrimination. Golick was one of 10 House Republicans that voted against the bill.
"What this bill allows is discrimination. This bill for several pages transgresses on the rights of others under the guise of religion," Abrams said earlier this year.
"We cannot balance discrimination on the backs of those we force to bend. House Bill 757 as amended forces a community to bend to the will of others," Abrams added.
Abrams, a possible candidate for governor in 2018, has also co-sponsored the Fair Employment Practices Act. The measure from Drenner would protect LGBT state employees from discrimination. The measure has had bipartisan support but failed to grain traction in the state House.
In 2017, Republicans will have a near super majority in the House by controlling 118 of 180 seats, leaving them two votes shy of overriding a Deal veto and passing constitutional amendments without support from Democrats. Abrams leads a Democratic Caucus with 62 seats.