Ga. Senate panel protects LGBT state workers

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An all-Democratic panel of Georgia senators added LGBT protections to legislation that would protect state employees from workplace discrimination during a hearing on Wednesday. 

The move from the Senate Special Judiciary Committee came as they considered Senate Bill 391, the Fair Employment Practices Act, from Sen. Hunter Hill, an Atlanta Republican. But the panel’s work was stopped short of passing the legislation to the full Senate Rules Committee when Hill left the hearing early to attend to other legislative matters. Senate procedures require that a bill sponsor be present for the committee to vote. (UPDATE | The committee voted Thursday morning to pass the measure to the Senate Rules Committee for consideration.)

Adding “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the list of protected classes in the legislation – made through an amendment by Sen. Elena Parent, a Decatur Democrat – provided a glimmer of hope to LGBT activists who have been combatting a series of anti-gay “religious freedom” bills during the legislative session.

The Senate panel will attempt to pass the legislation on Thursday, according to Chair Curt Thompson, a Democrat from Tucker.

Hill (top photo) said he’s been crafting the legislation for two years and hoped to avoid a laundry list of protected classes – including “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” – to provide broad protections for state 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.”

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. 

“I’ve created language that includes everyone. It doesn’t highlight anyone’s differences, it just says everyone is going to be protected under Georgia law,” Hill said.

But Sen. Elena Parent said the bill’s broad language may be too expansive. 

“I totally understand what you trying to do – to create a neutral way for everyone to be evaluated by the exact same standards,” Parent said. “There is tension between really broad language and also getting at the things you want to get to.”

Parent said that states and cities with non-discrimination policies include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in workplace protections and that Hill’s bill could add those classes to the list already in the legislation. The debate was similar to one that House members had earlier this month during a hearing on a broad civil rights measure. That panel voted down attempts to add LGBT protections to the bill.

On Friday, Parent was a leading critic of a “religious freedom” bill that the Senate passed 38-14. LGBT and progressive critics have called it “a license to discriminate” and it has sparked a national backlash.

'These words do matter'


Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, urged the Senate panel to add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to Hill’s bill. He called the legislation “a step in the right direction.”

“We as a community need these protections,” Graham said. “Those words have been chosen and vetted over the last 20 years. Those words do matter.”

Connie Galloway (second photo), a lesbian and former state employee for nearly 31 years, said LGBT employees need workplace protections. She said she was fired by a supervisor who told her “we don’t like those kind of people” at the community mental health center where she worked. 

“I was fired because I was gay,” Galloway told the committee. “Because there were no laws to protect me, there was nothing that could be done.”

Parent proposed the amendment to add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the seven protected classes in the bill. It easily passed the committee with support from Parent and Sens. Gail Davenport and Donzella James, both Democrats.

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. The measure, which has bipartisan support, received hearings in 2012 and 2013.


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