Democrats in the Georgia Senate formally unveiled a sweeping civil rights bill that would protect LGBT people and others from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.
Senate Bill 119, also know as the Georgia Civil Rights Act, would bring the state in line with 45 others – and federal standards – that already ban discrimination based on race, gender, ancestry and religion. The measure would add protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which are protections not included in federal law.
"There are absolutely no protections for people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in the state of Georgia. Federal protections are very limited," Sen. Lester Jackson (top photo), a Savannah Democrat, chair of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus and sponsor of the bill, said Thursday during a press conference.
"We should reinforce the idea that discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated in our state just as 45 other states have done," Jackson added.
The legislation carries with it steep penalties for violations – $10,000 for the first offense, $20,000 for the second and $50,000 for the third. The bill would create a Public Accommodations Division within the Georgia Commission on Equal Opportunity to enforce the expanded protections, hold administrative hearings and levy fines on violators.
Jackson introduced the bill on Feb. 2 with 11 co-sponsors – all Democrats. They included Senate Minority Leader Sen. Steve Henson, and staunch LGBT advocates Sens. Vincent Fort and Elena Parent. Other co-sponsors are Sens. Horacena Tate, Valencia Seay, Michael Rhett, Harold Jones, Gloria Butler, Emanuel Jones, Gail Davenport and Curt Thompson.
On Thursday, Jackson was flanked by members of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus and other Democratic lawmakers who support the legislation.
"We stand fully behind the Georgia Civil Rights Act," said state Rep. Erica Thomas, communications chair for the Black Caucus. "Civil rights has long been an important issue for this caucus and [with] the largest Black Caucus in the nation, we have a duty to fight for civil rights in every way possible and for every person possible."
Despite the support, the bill faces an uphill fight in a Republican-controlled Senate. Jackson said supporters hope it receives a hearing from the Senate Judiciary Committee. A similar civil rights bill failed in the House last year after progressive lawmakers tried to add LGBT protections to it.
Jackson and LGBT activists said they expect an LGBT-inclusive civil rights bill to be introduced in the House in the coming weeks. Democratic leaders in the House said last month that the legislation is a priority.
Several supporters of the Georgia Civil Rights Act spoke out during the press conference on Thursday:
Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, called introduction of the legislation a "historic moment."
"You are working to ensure that all Georgians regardless of their race, religion, national origin, disability, sex age, gender identity or sexual orientation are protected against discrimination here in Georgia," Graham said.
"This is a discussion that Georgians in general are ready to have and a discussion that over 350,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Georgians desperately need to have happen so that we know we are offered the same protections under the law that any other group currently enjoys," he added.
"It's time for Georgia lawmakers to address our state's outdated protections and expand them to include common sense protections for all Georgians from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations," Graham said.
State Rep. Park Cannon, one of four LGBTQ lawmakers in the House, applauded the "courage and leadership from the Senate" for introducing the legislation.
"Senate Bill 119 will provide a way for us to have a better conversation about how civil rights is inclusive of LGBTQ+ rights and how we're working together here. I hope that this is a message the comes out from us to our constituents that we hear your concerns and we're working hard to make sure that everyone is protected here in the state of Georgia," Cannon said.
State Sen. Vincent Fort, a longtime advocate of LGBT equality and an Atlanta mayoral candidate, said Democrats in the Senate have "stood up over the years for freedom, justice and equality." He said the legislation is another example of that support.
"It is the most comprehensive civil rights law yet introduced in the Georgia legislature," Fort said.
Sen. Steve Henson, the Senate Minority Leader, said the bill sends a clear message.
"We're making sure that we're protecting the rights of our citizens to live their lives free of fear," Henson said.