Athens, Columbus near passage of broad LGBTQ protections

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Two of Georgia’s six largest cities stand poised to adopt sweeping LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances, bringing protections to some 300,000 more residents.

But a similar effort in the state’s second-largest city stalled amid concerns over how to enforce the policy. Such policies are in place across Georgia in 12 municipalities, with 11 passing in the last three years.

The policies ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion and several other factors in private employment, housing and public accommodations. The complaint process, fines and revocation of business licenses vary by ordinance. Several also call for tracking hate crimes.

The Athens-Clarke County Commission votes on its nondiscrimination ordinance during a meeting on Tuesday, according to Commissioner Mariah Parker. The city is Georgia’s sixth most populous.

“I feel really good about it,” Parker told Project Q Atlanta. “It’s likely unanimous passage.”

The commission has two LGBTQ members – Parker and Commissioner Jesse Houle. They fought to include nontraditional family structures like polyamory in the ordinance, and the latest version keeps those passages in tact.

Parker, Commissioner Tim Denson and Athens Pride hosted a public forum in June to aid the effort.

“People had a lot of great questions that we have since passed along to our attorneys and have been discussing amongst ourselves to make sure we’re giving the most comprehensive information out to people, as well as just thinking ahead to other initiatives we can start focusing on once it’s done,” Parker said.

Parker began fighting for the ordinance upon taking office in 2018.

“This is why we do the work,” she said. “Occasionally we get to do really transformative things for our community.”

The ordinance would go into effect immediately if passed at the Aug. 3 meeting. Mayor Kelly Girtz would vote only if the commission came to a tie. He supports the measure, according to Parker.

Columbus City Councilmember Walker Garrett hopes a vote on a nondiscrimination ordinance takes place in late August.

Religious group leads opposition in Columbus

Columbus City Councilmember Walker Garrett also hopes to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance in his city, the state’s third-largest, in August. But religious groups are trying to derail the effort over the measure’s inclusion of LGBTQ protections.

“It all seems to be centered on the gender identity and sexual orientation [inclusion in the measure],” Garrett said.

Garrett, Columbus LGBTQ Liaison Jacy Jenkins and other city officials have pushed for the measure since at least January 2020.

The council originally scheduled the ordinance for consideration in May 2021, but the council delayed it over opposition from the local chamber of commerce and some council members. The council passed an anti-discrimination resolution instead.

The chamber then hosted a forum about the ordinance in July. Speakers included Garrett, Mayor Skip Henderson, Chamber President Jerald Mitchell and LGBTQ strategist Cathy Woolard.

Woolard – the first openly LGBTQ elected official in Georgia history – was instrumental in Atlanta adopting a nondiscrimination ordinance in 2000, when she served as president of the Atlanta City Council.

Garrett, a Republican, said the forum went well but religious organizations, including local churches and the vocally anti-gay Faith & Freedom Coalition objected to the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the ordinance.

“I can’t believe people are using religious arguments like this,” Garret said. “I’m a Baptist deacon and quoted scripture, and said the ultimate commandment is to love your neighbor like yourself.”

The Faith & Freedom Coalition of Georgia did not respond to Project Q’s questions about its objections. 

“They’re lobbying very heavily against it,” Garrett said.

The group was once led by Josh McKoon, the former state senator from Columbus and public face of the fight over failed anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” legislation for several years. McKoon no longer leads the group and is not involved in the nondiscrimination debate, he told Project Q.

Garrett plans to introduce the measure at the council’s meeting on Aug. 24 with a formal vote on Aug. 31. He won’t strip sexual orientation and gender identity from the ordinance to appease opponents, he said.

“Absolutely not,” Garrett said. “I believe everyone should be treated on the basis of merit. As a Christian, I wouldn’t want to be discriminated against. To me that would basically be saying one class of people is not equal, and I believe everyone is equal.”

DeMarcus Beckham, southern field organizer for Georgia Equality, praised leaders in Athens and Columbus for nearing the finish line on their ordinances.

“They’re sending a powerful message of inclusion and underline that everyone is welcome in our communities,” he said. “These cities are setting the tone for other municipalities across the state who are curious to see if the passage of these ordinances could benefit their city too.”

Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis is a strong proponent of a nondiscrimination ordinance. (Photo via Facebook)

Staffing concerns stall Augusta effort

Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis first proposed an LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance in 2019 and remains a strong advocate for the measure, according to Equality Augusta President Matthew Duncan.

“He’s been great on the LGBTQ+ side,” Duncan said. “He’s pushing for this and supporting it.”

But even Davis’s backing couldn’t keep the Augusta Commission from postponing a vote on the ordinance indefinitely on July 27. Some commissioners expressed concern over the number of city employees needed to enforce the measure.

Equality Augusta hosted a forum about the ordinance in June featuring law professors, attorneys, faith leaders and representatives from the NAACP and Georgia Equality.

“It was great,” Duncan said. “We had a pretty good group.”

Duncan said on July 20 that eight of the 10 commissioners told him they support the ordinance. Before the objections, the Administrative Services committee expected to recommend the measure to the full commission for a vote.

Enforcement of the measure would fall on the city’s compliance department and Richmond County’s marshal, magistrate court and solicitor’s office. Some commissioners worried that those offices weren’t consulted about the ordinance, according to the Augusta Chronicle. The city’s law department also couldn’t say if the ordinance would require additional staff.

The committee recommended creating a new committee to review the ordinance and report back to the commission in 60 days, according to Augusta Deputy Clerk Natasha McFarley. Augusta-Richmond County is the state’s second-largest municipality.

Several commissioners were surprised by the delay, according to the Augusta Chronicle.

“Three or four of us commissioners were blindsided. We thought it was ready to go,” Commissioner John Clarke said. “And then all of the sudden, it wasn’t good to go.”

Duncan told Project Q in early July that he hopes the ordinance passes “as soon as possible.”

“We’ll have some turnover in the commission coming up soon, so obviously we don’t want to get all the support and they all leave,” Duncan said.

Three commissioners and the mayor face term limits, so their seats are up for grabs next year.

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