National backlash builds over Georgia’s anti-gay bill

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As the furor builds over the broad anti-gay bill passed by the Georgia Senate, local and national LGBT groups urged state leaders to “do the right thing” and reject what they called the “license to discriminate” bill.

As leaders in Georgia, you can advance this discriminatory bill – and in the process, you will damage your state’s economy and tarnish your brand to an extent that will undoubtedly bring Georgia’s recent business growth to a screeching halt. You will send a clear message to the rest of the nation that not all people are welcomed or treated equally in Georgia. Or, you could do the right thing. You could reject this divisive and discriminatory bill, showing real leadership and taking a bold step that aligns with the values of Georgia voters and business owners. We hope you make the right decision at this important juncture.

The letter from Georgia Unites Against Discrimination was sent to Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Senate President Pro Tem David Shafer and House Speaker David Ralston. Ten LGBT and progressive groups signed on, including Georgia Equality, Georgia Unites, American Unity Fund, Equality Federation, Freedom for All Americans, Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, National Center for Lesbian Rights, National Center for Transgender Equality and National LGBTQ Task Force.

However, the so-called “First Amendment Defense Act” language rolled into this new bill sets Georgia on a dangerous path; one which could greatly damage the state’s economy and harm your reputation. As drafted, the bill invites individuals, faith-based organizations and even for-profit entities to deny services to anyone who they feel conflicts with their view of marriage. The scope of this extraordinary bill means legally married same-sex couples and their families, single mothers and their children, victims of domestic violence, and so many other hardworking Georgians could be denied critical – sometimes life-saving – services.

Deal and Ralston hinted on Monday that they are open to changing the legislation, which the Senate approved 38-14 along a party line vote on Friday. The move by the Senate came three days after its Rules Committee – under the watchful eye of Shafer –created a hybrid bill that took one largely innocuous bill – Rep. Kevin Tanner's Pastor Protection Act – and combined it with a sweeping anti-gay measure – Sen. Greg Kirk's First Amendment Defense Act – to hatch a bill that would sanction LGBT discrimination by faith-based organizations and undercut non-discrimination protections in place in companies and cities across the state.

What happens next to the legislation is anyone's guess. The Senate vote returned the legislation to the House, where the Pastor Protection Act passed 161-0 on Feb. 11. Georgia Pol outlined several possible steps, which range from the House accepting the amended legislation to doing nothing to rejecting the changes and forcing a conference committee of three House members and three senators.

Since Friday's vote, business groups, pundits, entertainment and hospitality interests and more have come out strongly against it. A gay-owned business is already planning to pack up shop and move. Some Republicans aren't backing it. Even Wilson Cruz and his sexy abs denounced it.

Business groups and owners, largely quiet until the Senate vote, are turning up the volume. The Metro Atlanta Chamber, in a letter on Friday, told senators that the hybrid bill needs to be stopped.

We believe that treating all Georgians and visitors fairly is essential to maintaining Georgia's strong brand as the premier home for talented workers, growing businesses, entrepreneurial innovation, and a thriving travel and tourism industry.

The Chamber is a supporter of Georgia Prospers, an initiative among business and education leaders launched to combat “religious freedom” bills. Some 300 businesses, schools and enterprises have signed the organization's pledge, which says they will welcome “all people, no matter one's race, sex, color, national origin, ethnicity, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.”

The group is headed by Ronnie Chance, a Republican and former leader of the state Senate. Chance warned lawmakers away from the bill in a column for the AJC.

No one in Georgia wants to go through what Indiana experienced. It is a little-known fact that Georgia state law offers no nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT community. In other words, this bill will take Georgia law from a “see-no-evil” approach to discrimination to tacit approval. That could prove devastating for our reputation as a great place to do business.

We can renew our image as the gateway to the Southeast, the leader that’s still “The State Too Busy to Hate.” We don’t have to choose between our faiths and economic growth that benefits us all. We can have our peach and eat it too.

The entertainment industry – which Deal and other state leaders hold dear for its 79,000 jobs and $4 billion in wages it pumps into the state economy – is warning that the legislation threatens Hollywood's fascination with the state. Via the AJC:

“It would really do irreparable harm to our brand as a state,” said Brian Tolleson, who owns a digital entertainment company called Bark Bark that works with studios and media companies on everything from production to marketing.

“This very assembly working on this bill has invested billions of taxpayer dollars growing an industry that would leave this state,” said Tolleson, who has clients from New York to Los Angeles. “They will boycott coming to shoot anything here. The powers that be in the industry really want to defeat Georgia’s rise as an entertainment destination. And we’re handing it to them on a silver platter.”

And Kelvin Williams, who like Tolleson is gay, said he's moving his small Decatur-based telecom startup 373k to Nevada. Via the New Civil Rights Movement:

“I'm gay, our CFO is gay, we have people from every walk of life working here,” Williams told The New Civil Rights Movement in a telephone interview Saturday afternoon.

“I've got Muslims, Buddhists, atheists here,” he added. “We've got great Christians working for us. They've never thought of not serving anyone – that's not the message of Christ.”

“We don't tolerate that crap,” he said, explicitly, of discrimination.

Williams says the anti-gay bill is “not conducive for Georgia,” lamenting that the “business environment in the state is not that great anyway.”

“It's sad our state government wants to take us back in time,” Williams says. “I wish Georgia would wake up.”

“If you're not a white married Christian heterosexual, prepare to be persecuted,” he warned.

Of the company's 20 employees, just five are in Georgia. Williams says he's out, but the others have the option to stay if they wish. (For what it's worth, Georgia Pundit points out that 373k is a vendor for the Democratic Party.)

The legislation is raising difficult questions for other business owners. Cook's Warehouse CEO Mary Moore said the bill is making Georgia “a national poster child for discrimination.” Via Saporta Report:

“If this moves forward, it will be a huge step backwards for Atlanta,” Moore said in a telephone interview on Sunday. “We will become a national poster child for discrimination.”

Already Moore said that some international business colleagues have asked her why Georgia is spending time on such legislation instead of dealing with substantive issues like transportation and poverty.

And Michael Russell, CEO of Atlanta-based HJ Russell, said the devil to this bill is in the details. Via the AJC:

“For 95 percent of people, it is very difficult to distinguish all of the subtleties of this bill’s effect,” said Michael Russell, the CEO of the Atlanta-based HJ Russell & Co — one of the largest minority-owned real estate firms in the nation. “At the end of the day, I’m very concerned about the message it sends: The leaders of this state are not providing a positive climate of inclusion.”

InterContinental Hotels Group, which has it's North American headquarters in Atlanta, warned of the hit the bill would have on the state's reputation and economy. IHG is among 13 Atlanta-based companies that scored a perfect 100 on HRC's Corporate Equality Index. The business also took part in the Atlanta Pride parade in October (bottom photo). Via the AJC:

“The current version of HB 757 may allow discrimination against our guests and employees and is in direct contradiction to our company’s anti-discrimination policy and culture of hospitality,” the InterContinental Hotels Group’s Paul Snyder said in a letter to senators and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the chamber’s president. “If passed, it will send a message to our customers, employees and visitors from across the nation that Georgia is closed for business to a specific class of people.”

Even upscale automaker, Porsche, which has its North American headquarters in Atlanta, is bristling at the bill. Via ABC News:

“We are standing up for the principles of inclusion and fair treatment for every Georgia citizen and every visitor to Georgia,” Joe Folz, vice president of Porsche Cars North America said Monday. “Legislation that promotes – or even appears to allow – discrimination against certain classes of people hurts Georgia's hard-earned reputation.”

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