City by city, movement to protect LGBTQ people spreads across Georgia

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The effort to pass broad, LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination policies in cities and counties across Georgia is entering a new phase, with advocates aiming to reach nearly 20 such measures – and some of the state’s largest cities – by the end of the year.

Supporters argue the ordinances are critical since Georgia doesn’t offer statewide LGBTQ protections.

“This is not something that should be controversial,” said Stephe Koontz, the transgender Doraville City Councilor leading the push to pass the ordinances in metro Atlanta cities. “Human rights should be a given.”

Atlanta, the state’s largest city, was the only one in Georgia with an LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance until 2018. That’s when Koontz took office as the only transgender elected official in the state and helped Doraville pass an ordinance in November and worked with other cities on similar measures.

In 2019, Clarkston, Chamblee, Dunwoody and Decatur passed LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances. Brookhaven, East Point, Savannah, Smyrna, Hapeville and Statesboro passed ordinances in 2020. An effort to pass a similar measure in Tucker stalled last year.

“I’m very excited that my actions resulted in this snowball effect of other communities adopting these same protections and I hope that going forward, this exponentially grows to cover the whole state,” Koontz said.

Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham called the effort “tremendous.”

“It really is branching out across the state,” he said.

But of the 12 cities in Georgia with the ordinances, just two – Atlanta and Savannah – are among the state’s top 10 most populous cities. Supporters of the measures are working to address that.

Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham (center) hopes nearly 20 municipalities are covered by LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances by the end of 2021. (File photo)

Hapeville embraces ordinance

In October, Hapeville became the 12th city in Georgia to pass an ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in private employment, housing and public accommodations. The city of about 7,000 people is near Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

The Hapeville City Council passed the measure three to zero. The measure also bans discrimination based on actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, age, disability, marital status, familial status and military status.

“This ordinance galvanizes the open, loving and accepting community that Hapeville and its residents embrace,” Hapeville Mayor Alan Hallman told Project Q Atlanta.

The ordinance calls for a hearing officer to review initial complaints of alleged violations and then refer the case to an independent mediator for non-binding and voluntary mediation. A complaint must be filed within 90 days of the alleged act of discrimination and include a $50 filing fee.

If the complaint is not resolved through mediation, the case will go to a hearing. A first offense brings a $500 fine, which increases to $1,000 for additional offenses. The city council can also vote to revoke the business license of repeat violators of the ordinance.

The fees for the mediator are assessed to the non-prevailing party in the complaint, though the hearing officer can waive that.

The ordinance carves out exceptions, including a religiously-oriented business that hires employees to perform work related to religious activities, non-profit private clubs not open to the public and religious organizations operating non-commercial facilities.

The ordinance also calls for tracking hate crimes and training city police on how to investigate and report them.

Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Mariah Parker (Photo courtesy Athens-Clarke County Commission)

‘Macon is back in play’

The Macon-Bibb County Commission passed an LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance in November, but former Mayor Robert Reichert vetoed it. It was one of his final acts before Mayor Lester Miller took office.

Georgia Equality is co-hosting a free virtual “Understanding Comprehensive Civil Rights” event on Thursday and Friday featuring a slew of elected officials, attorneys, civil rights activists, business leaders and faith leaders. It’s an effort to clear up concerns about the nondiscrimination ordinance in Macon, the state’s fourth-largest city.

“Macon is back in play currently and we’re hoping that it will pass again and that some of the questions and concerns that were brought up that led the mayor to veto it will be answered,” Graham said.

The Augusta Commission is currently vetting a similar ordinance, according to Graham. Augusta, with more than 200,000 people, is the state’s second-largest city.

“We’re hoping it comes out of committee in the very near future and goes back to the full Augusta Commission for a vote,” he said.

The ordinance is also under consideration in Columbus, the state’s third-largest city.

“Those conversations did stall out a little bit,” Graham said. “Questions came up about it.”

He hopes this week’s virtual event will serve as a template for a similar one in Columbus. Georgia Equality is also working with advocates in Cobb, Gwinnett and DeKalb to get LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances in those counties.

The Athens-Clarke County Commission is also debating such an ordinance, according to Commissioner Mariah Parker, the only LGBTQ member of the commission. Parker and Commissioner Jesse Houle are fighting for more expansive language in the ordinance to include familial structures such as polyamorous people.

“I feel confident that we’re reaching our final stages of work on the policy and that it will receive the unanimous support of the full commission,” Parker told Project Q.

Athens is the sixth-largest city in the state.

Georgia Equality’s goal is to pass ordinances in Macon, Augusta, Columbus, Athens, Cobb, Gwinnett and DeKalb by the end of the year, according to Graham. That would cover the six largest cities in Georgia with the LGBTQ protections. Sandy Springs, South Fulton, Roswell and Johns Creek round out the state’s 10 largest cities.

This story is made possible by Google News Initiative’s Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.

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