Anti-LGBT legislation could take many forms at the State Capitol during the 2017 legislative session, and Georgia Equality, along with their partners at Georgia Unites Against Discrimination, are gearing up for a fight.
“We have been bracing for several months now for a return of some version of a RFRA bill. Sen. McKoon has certainly been talking about that,” said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality
Graham added there has also been speculation about “legislation that would specifically target the transgender community, and that’s one of the things that we’re most concerned about.”
McKoon has made it clear that the “religious freedom” (RFRA) fight is not over, despite House Speaker David Ralston trying to push the issue to federal lawmakers. McKoon is also charging forward with the legislative fight even as business groups pledge to fight any bills that discriminate.
But Graham said Georgia Equality isn’t just preparing to play defense – the group plans to introduce comprehensive civil rights legislation and make it a “big focus” of their efforts at the Gold Dome. Georgia remains one of the few states without any state-level protections. Although Graham doesn’t believe it can pass this year, he said the legislation is an important way to shift the conversation around people’s lived experiences.
“Now is the time for us to start talking about what would a comprehensive civil rights bill in Georgia look like,” Graham said. “I truly don’t anticipate that we would be able to pass this legislation in 2017, but we have to start having the conversation.”
A sweeping civil rights bill that addressed public acommodations was proposed earlier this year. But efforts to add LGBT protections failed and the bill stalled.
Graham said a civil rights bill would protect LGBT people and other minorities and provide a chance to “talk about what sorts of religious exemptions inside a civil rights bill make sense to make sure that clergy, places of worship, religious institutions are protected….” Religious exemptions are a common component of civil rights legislation.
Georgia Equality is also looking to turn to Sam Olens, the former state Attorney General who became president of Kennesaw State University in November. Olens, a top Republican in the state, could bring clout to a discussion over civil rights legislation.
Graham said Olen’s new role as KSU president provides an opportunity for him to learn more about LGBT experiences and laws and policies that can protect LGBT people.
“I think that [Olens] could be an influential voice of reason, as he learns more about the need for these policies and the need for him as university president to protect them and frankly as one of the leaders of the republican party here in Georgia,” Graham said.
In October, as Olens came under fire for his anti-LGBT record as Attorney General, he pointed to Graham’s willingness to give him a chance as a sign that Graham doesn’t share the concerns that have been repeatedly raised by LGBT students and staff at KSU.
“I would note that Jeff Graham, who’s the head of (LGBT-activist organization) Georgia Equality, doesn’t share those concerns,” Olens said, according to the Marietta Daily Journal.
Olens defended the state’s same-sex marriage ban, and was involved in lawsuit aimed at derailing federal guidelines concerning transgender students during his tenure as Attorney General. He’s now repeatedly claimed these were not his personal views, and that he was merely doing his job.
“It’s an argument that makes sense to me, and that’s why I am willing — not to excuse what happened in the past but — to give him the space to see what his own personal views might be,” Graham said.
“I honestly feel that we need to give people an opportunity to change their minds and opinions,” Graham said, adding that “how you hold him accountable for the past, is by encouraging him to be proactive going forward.”
The fun and games begin when legislators start a new session on Jan. 9.