The Cobb Republican who proposed legislation to protect state employees from discrimination tanked his own bill after a Senate committee added protections for LGBT workers.
Sen. Hunter Hill took to the floor of the Senate on Thursday to withdraw Senate Bill 391, just a short time after the Senate Special Judiciary Committee – a panel of all Democrats – approved it with an amendment from Sen. Elena Parent to add protections based on "sexual orientation" and "gender identity."
The Senate panel added the LGBT protections during a hearing on Feb. 24 but couldn't pass the legislation until Thursday morning after Hill left the hearing early. So for a matter of hours, the bill provided a glimmer of hope to LGBT activists who have been combatting a series of anti-gay “religious freedom” bills during the legislative session.
But as quickly as the legislation surfaced before the Senate panel last week, it disappeared when Hill pulled it from consideration.
LGBT activists expressed disappointment that Hill wouldn't support his own legislation once specific LGBT protections were added.
"It's certainly very disappointing that he pulled the bill from consideration," said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality. "Frankly, we were really hoping to have some additional debate on what LGBT protections need to look like here in Georgia. We wish that he would have allowed the process to move forward a little bit more."
During the Feb. 24 hearing, Hill said he had been crafting the Fair Employment Practices Act for nearly two years. The bill would amend the Fair Employment Practices Act of 1978 to broaden the definition of discrimination to protect state employees from workplace discrimination. The law already includes seven protected categories – race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability and age – and Hill’s legislation would expand discrimination to include “any reason other than that of individual merit, performance, qualifications, or noncompliance with standards of presentation.”
Hill said that would mean that any state employee – gay or not – can only be judged on their performance and qualifications. The lawmaker resisted calls during the hearing to add specific protections for LGBT employees.
“When we create additional special classes, it has the net effect of dividing us further because we are calling people out for differences,” Hill told the committee. “The net effect of this bill is to have empathy and understanding for people who call themselves homosexual or identify their sexual orientation.”
Graham credited the Republican lawmaker for introducing the bill.
"Sen. Hill, especially in his comments at the hearing, he did say that his motivation was very clear in trying to protect LGBT employees from discrimination. I disagree with how he tried to do it but applaud him. Here's a Republican senator that stepped up to the plate and said this is an issue we need to work on in Georgia," Graham said.
Graham said he hopes to work with Hill to bring the legislation back in 2017.
"It is especially encouraging given the hostility that has come out of so many Senate bills this year. In the midst of it all, we were able to have a conversation for a couple of hours on how to protect LGBT employees from discrimination," Graham said.
Hill did not respond to repeated requests for comment. His office directed our inquiries to the Senate Press Office, which in turn forwarded them to Hill's office and they didn't respond. Again. Sen Ed. Harbison, a Columbus Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, also did not respond to requests for comment.
The move by Hill to withdraw his bill is another attempt by Republican lawmakers to stop measures that specifically address LGBT discrimination. Last month, a House panel rejected efforts to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes in a public accommodations bill. And last year, the same House Judiciary Committee tabled a "religious freedom" bill from Sen. Josh McKoon when LGBT protections were successfully added to it. When senators tried to defang McKoon's anti-gay legislation, the bill was tabled and the Republican leader who pushed to soften the measure was criticized.
And for several years, lawmakers have ignored legislation from Rep. Karla Drenner, one of three openly gay House members, that would protect LGBT state employees from discrimination. House Bill 323, which has bipartisan support, received hearings in 2012 and 2013.
Regina Willis contributed to this report.