Lawmakers refuse to protect LGBT Georgians

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A Georgia House panel rejected efforts to expand a sweeping civil rights bill that bans discrimination in public accommodations to include LGBT people, the disabled and veterans.

But the Georgia Civil Rights in Public Accommodations Act from state Rep. Rich Golick, a Cobb Republican, was expanded to add sex among four other protected categories – race, color, religion or national origin – before the House Judiciary Committee approved it during a hearing on Tuesday.

For the second time in two days, House Republicans fought back an amendment from state Rep. Taylor Bennett (second photo), a Brookhaven Democrat, to expand the list of protected categories in the bill to include sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, age and veteran's status. On Tuesday, when Bennett proposed the expanded list, state Rep. Beth Beskin (top photo), a Buckhead Republican, countered it with her own amendment to drop all but sex from Bennett's list.

When questioned by other lawmakers, including LGBT ally Rep, Mary Margaret Oliver, about deleting sexual orientation and gender identity from Bennett's amendment, Beskin said “it's not my intent” for LGBT people to face discrimination but she refused to explain why she favored the truncated list of protected classes.

“My intent was to add one additional protected class to the four that were in the substitute,” Beskin said.

Beskin's amendment to add just sex to the other four protected categories passed 8 to 5. Her move killed Bennett's amendment to add six protected classes to the legislation, including sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill then gained quick approval from the Judiciary Committee, moving it to the full House for a floor vote that could come later this week. Last year, Beskin voted to add LGBT protections to a “religious freedom” bill from state Sen. Josh McKoon after LGBT activists harshly criticized her for voting the bill out of a subcommittee.

Rep. Stacey Evans, a Democrat who said she supported Bennett's amendment, called for the creation of a study committee to investigate what other protected classes should be added to Golick's bill. She wanted to add that language to the bill as an amendment, but state Rep. Barry Fleming – a staunch anti-gay lawmaker – objected and her effort was ruled out of order. But the committee chair, state Rep. Wendell Willard, said he would support Evans if she pursued the study committee through a House resolution.

“I will pledge myself to support that if you want to have a resolution drawn up for that purpose,” Willard said.

LGBT activists criticized the bill in the wake of Tuesday's vote.

On Monday, Republicans stacked a Judiciary subcommittee hearing with three lawmakers not on the panel. That move allowed them to vote down an amendment from Bennett to expand the list of protected categories in Golick's bill 6 to 4.

Golick's bill bans discrimination in public accommodations such as hotels, restaurants, gas stations, movie theaters, sports arenas and entertainment venues. Georgia is one of five states without a public accommodation law, though scores of jurisdictions across the state have passed local measures. How the bill would address complaints of discrimination, according to the Associated Press:

People who feel they have been discriminated against could file a complaint within a year to the state Commission on Equal Opportunity. The commission, created by a 1978 state law, already handles complaints related to discrimination in public employment and federal and state fair housing laws.

The commission would have 90 days to review the complaint, with the power to subpoena evidence and issue fines against people who give false statements, refuse to testify or won't provide evidence.

If commission staffers find a violation occurred, a three-member panel including an attorney will hold a hearing and can issue fines ranging from $10,000 to $50,000, based on the accused's prior violations. Those decisions can be appealed to local courts.

Pastor Protection Act gets approval

Also Tuesday, the Judiciary Committee quickly passed a revised Pastor Protection Act, the measure from state Rep. Kevin Tanner. It reaffirms that pastors are not required to perform gay marriages – protections already found in state and federal law – or deliver rites and sacraments to LGBT people. It also allows churches to refuse to host same-sex weddings and LGBT events at their facilities, something that churches are already allowed to do under current law.

Tanner's bill – favored by House Speaker David Ralston – will now move to the full House for a vote.

LGBT activists, along with state Rep. Stacey Evans, raised concerns about a portion of the bill during a subcommittee hearing on Thursday. They questioned if Section 3 of the bill would allow religious organizations that receive public funds to discriminate against LGBT people in their halfway houses, shelters, soup kitchens or senior housing. Evans proposed an amendment on Thursday to limit the scope of the bill to the non-commercial operations of churches. That effort was sidelined with the promise from fellow lawmakers that they would address her concerns when the bill reached the full Judiciary Committee.

The bill approved on Tuesday limited the protections for churches to events, a move that Evans said she appreciated but one that “was not everything I had hoped for.”

Several other bills – including House Bill 756, also from Tanner – are more controversial and explicitly attack LGBT equality. Tanner's other measure would protect private businesses that refuse service to gay couples getting married.


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