Some 150 LGBT activists and progressive supporters braved freezing temperatures and a dusting of snow to rally against a slate of anti-gay bills at the State Capitol on Tuesday.
The rally from Georgia Unites Against Discrimination featured a diverse cast of participants, from LGBT activists to faith leaders and gay and gay-friendly Republicans. The event was a replay of a rally last March, when LGBT activists and faith leaders gathered to denounce an anti-gay "religious freedom" bill from state Sen. Josh McKoon.
But this year – in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage – lawmakers have proposed a series of "religious freedom" bills. They include a mostly benign Pastor Protection Act from state Rep. Kevin Tanner to a much more dangerous measure from state Sen. Greg Kirk that would gut LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances across the state and allow businesses to discriminate against gay couples who want to get married.
After Tuesday's rally, Tanner's bill was passed by the House Judiciary Committee while Kirk's proposal – which had a surprise hearing on Feb. 1– is scheduled for a hearing by the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday.
Jeff Graham (photo), executive director of Georgia Equality, called the slate of bills "dangerous."
"Our message today is not just to say that these religious exemption bills are bad for Georgia and dangerous for so many of us," Graham said.
"We are also here today to say that when Georgia unites against discrimination, we can say that our state is a livable state, it is a welcoming state for tourists, it is a state that has a better business environment and it is a state that can have a reputation of leading the new South. That's the Georgia that we all deserve," he added.
Graham noted that proponents of the "religious freedom" bills consistently refuse to add LGBT protections to the measures.
"Our opponents who say that these bills are harmless have shown their true colors," Graham said. "So we know that it is about discrimination."
Simone Bell, a lesbian state lawmaker who resigned in November, criticized her former colleagues for pushing the bills in the name of religion.
"There is nothing godly about writing discrimination into the law," Bell said. "There is nothing godly about seeking to harm individuals who are fighting for their rights to simply be."
The rally also included Republicans who criticized the legislation. Allen Fox, a gay Republican and director of Georgia Republicans for the Future, spoke out against the bills during a Feb. 2 press conference inside the State Capitol. On Tuesday across the street in Liberty Plaza, he again blasted the bills.
"The party has shut the door and we want to open the door," Fox said. "We represent over 2,000 conservatives – yes, conservatives – across the state that believe in inclusion, that believe in tolerance and stand against the perception of discrimination and the impact that has to our party."