Gay Atlanta group hires notorious anti-gay attorney

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MORE | State’s ex top lawyer rips ‘religious freedom’ bills

The former Georgia attorney general who made a career out of fighting LGBT equality was recently hired by statewide gay group Georgia Equality to oppose “religious freedom” bills percolating in the state legislature.

The surprise hiring of Michael Bowers was first reported on Saturday by the AJC, which was provided excerpts of his legal analysis of the controversial legislation. Bowers served 16 years as the state's attorney general before losing the GOP primary for governor in 1998 when details of his long-term extramarital affair surfaced.

Now, Bowers (top photo) has penned a damning legal analysis of “religious freedom” legislation from Sen. Josh McKoon and Rep. Sam Teasley that's been embraced by conservative lawmakers and anti-gay religious activists.

Via the AJC:

“First, I believe if enacted into law this legislation will be an excuse to practice invidious discrimination.

“Second, if enacted, the proposed [measures] will permit everyone to become a law unto themselves in terms of deciding what laws they will or will not obey, based on whatever religious tenets they may profess or create at any given time. The potential intended and unintended consequences are alarming.”

Bowers goes even further in his condemantion, according to Buzzfeed:

“The obvious unstated purpose of the proposed RFRA is to authorize discrimination against disfavored groups,” Bowers, who was attorney general in the state for 16 years, has determined of the Georgia legislation. A portion of his analysis — concluding that the legislation’s “potential intended and unintended consequences are alarming” — was shared with BuzzFeed News on Sunday.

Bowers also concludes that the bills could help resurrect the KKK. Via the AJC:

“It is no exaggeration that the proposed [measures] could be used to justify putting hoods back on the Ku Klux Klan. For decades, Georgia’s Anti-Mask Act has prohibited wearing masks in public.

“The law was enacted to prohibit the Ku Klux Klan from wearing hoods in public, and by extension, to discourage participation in its activities. While this statute contains exceptions for holidays, sporting events, theatrical performances, and gas masks, it does not contain a religious exercise exception – because many Klansmen used religion to justify participation in the Klan.
But the proposed [measures] would create a religious exception that was purposefully excluded. Anonymous participation in hate groups would undoubtedly rise….”

McKoon's bill stalled last week during a hearing before his own Senate Judiciary Committee. Teasley's measure has not been scheduled for a hearing.

Georgia Equality provided portions of the report to the AJC, which reported on the hiring on Saturday. Some of Bowers' analysis was also provided to Buzzfeed on Sunday. The LGBT organization declined to provide details of the report to Project Q Atlanta ahead of a press conference scheduled for Tuesday morning.

As the state’s top lawyer, Bowers took his fight against LGBT civil rights to the U.S. Supreme Court in Bowers v. Hardwick.In the 1986 case, Bowers successfully defended Georgia’s anti-sodomy law against a challenge by Michael Hardwick, a gay Atlanta man arrested for engaging in consensual oral sex with another man. The 5-4 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick upheld the constitutionality of the state’s sodomy law that criminalized oral and anal sex in private between consenting adults. It stood for 17 years, until the U.S. Supreme Court overruled Bowers in 2003 with Lawrence v. Texas. The Georgia Supreme Court struck down the state sodomy law in 1998.

In 1990 during Bowers' tenure as attorney general, lesbian attorney Robin Shahar accepted a position in his office. He rescinded the offer months later when he learned that she is a lesbian and planned a commitment ceremony with her partner. She sued and lost. Bowers has also opposed the City of Atlanta's efforts to offer domestic partner benefits.

Bowers, currently a partner with Balch & Bingham, could not be reached for comment on Monday. Shahar, now chief counsel in the city attorney's office and Mayor Kasim Reed's advisor on LGBT issues, could also not be reached for comment.

Bowers 'criminalized' LGBT people

In 2009, Bowers was criticized by Georgia Equality, the same group that hired him to provide a legal analysis of the “religious freedom” bills. That's when Bowers contributed $250 to the mayoral campaign of Mary Norwood, a gay-friendly candidate who later lost a close runoff with Reed.

At the time Jeff Graham (second photo), Georgia Equality's executive director, criticized the work of Bowers as a reason why LGBT people were “criminalized through the entire country.” He also called on Norwood's campaign to explain its relationship to Bowers.

“It gives me cause and concerns me to find out that Michael Bowers is one of her supporters,” Graham said in the October 2009 interview with Project Q Atlanta. “Michael Bowers, of course, is someone who throughout his career took every opportunity he could to block the advancement of LGBT rights. The reason that we were criminalized through the entire country was the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bowers v. Hardwick. I do think her campaign needs to explain exactly what her relationship with Mike Bowers is.”

Now, Graham said the importance of defeating the “religious freedom” bills brought the group together with its former foe.

“That was 2009 and this is 2015,” Graham said Monday. “We agree that the ['religious freedom' bills] are bad for Georgia. They are unneeded. He makes some very interesting points in his legal analysis of this. We had heard that this was an issue that he was personally very concerned about and we reached out to see if this was an issue we could work on and it is.”

Besides, Graham argued, people evolve on LGBT issues over time.

“We need to certainly have the ability in the LGBT movement, especially in this day and age, to accept that people's positions have and can change on a whole host of LGBT issues and that speaks to the success of the movement when we do have people willing to change some of their opinions,” he said.

But when pressed if Bowers' has changed his positions on whether a gay person can be fired over their sexual orientation, sodomy laws or his other anti-gay positions, Graham said he hadn't personally discussed those with the former attorney general.

“The conversations have really centered on ['religious freedom' bills] at this time. I haven't personally had any conversations with him beyond that,” Graham said. “This issue right now is our immediate challenge in Georgia – that issue being trying to defeat the religious freedom bills.”

Graham said Bowers completed an independent analysis of the “religious freedom” legislation for Georgia Equality. He would not disclose what Bowers was paid for the work. But Graham did say that the analysis should speak to Republican supporters of the bills.

“Frankly he has been an attorney and the attorney general for the State of Georgia for a long time. We've had other attorneys provide other legal analysis. We thought his opinion would be a very important one to have,” he said.

“As the former attorney general and as a noted Republican in the state of Georgia, his opinions and voice on this matter are very important to have,” Graham added.

UPDATE | Shahar told Project Q Atlanta that Bowers and Georgia Equality working together creates a “powerful” alliance to oppose the “religious freedom” bills. “With Michael Bowers and his history, it is courageous on both of their parts. The only way we as a society advance in a genuine way is to lower our guard and accept each other for who we are. I am hopeful that's what we're looking at right now. In my most optimistic point of view, that is my hope.”

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