Progressives make case for LGBT civil rights bill

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LGBT and progressive activists joined with attorneys to press for a statewide civil rights bill, arguing that a changing federal landscape makes it even more important that protections for people are spelled out in state law. 

The panel discussion on Tuesday came as state lawmakers consider LGBT-inclusive civil rights legislation as well as a “religious freedom” bill that critics argue will be used to target LGBT people.

“Now more than ever we need our states to protect us,” said Jeff Graham (photo), executive director of Georgia Equality. 

“I think that we’ve relied on the federal government and there’s just a lot of unease and unknown with how strong those federal protections will remain and be enforced,” he added.

The discussion took place during an event organized by the ALCU, Georgia Equality and the John Marshall Law School Black Law Students Association at the law school in Midtown.

Rep. Keisha Waites, one of four LGBTQ lawmakers in the state House, moderated the event. Waites has introduced House Bill 16, a measure that would better protect LGBTQ students from bullying.

Kathleen Burch, a professor at John Marshall, highlighted how cases including the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges, which led to the legalization of same-sex marriage, are based on laws that impact only what the state does. Burch pressed the point that protecting LGBT people and others must include what individuals do as well.

“What we see there is the court really enforcing the constitutional principles against state actors – so against the state, against municipalities, or local government. But it doesn’t impact what private individuals do. And so we need these civil rights acts in order to capture what private individuals are going as well,” Burch said.

Attorney Gerald Griggs argued that the changing federal landscape under the Trump administration is making state-level legislation more impactful.

“Particularly with the nomination and confirmation of Sen. Sessions to now head the [Office of] Attorney General, so the Office of Civil Rights is probably going to be gutted on a federal level. So you are going to need state protection. And I think a comprehensive civil rights act would provide that,” Griggs said.

Graham pointed out that until state-level protections are in place for LGBT people, the primary source of protections will come from judges – a daunting prospect in the face of Trump's judicial appointments.

“The judicial system is the only thing, frankly, that we as LGBT community has had to even look to for protections across the country,” Graham said.

Graham also discussed “religious freedom,” which made headlines earlier on Tuesday when Sen. Marty Harbin introduced Senate Bill 233. The legislation would add language from the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act to state law. Graham said the original intent of the federal law, passed in 1993, was to protect religious minorities.

“What it has morphed into these days is really a vehicle designed to allow people to claim a personal religious exemption from having to follow nondiscrimination laws or policies, or any other law that they do not like,” Graham said.

“Because Georgia does not have any comprehensive civil rights laws, [RFRA] tilts the scales automatically in favor of people that claim a specific religious exemptions, and there’s no balance under the law to it. And that’s what scares me the most,” he added.

Mawuli Mel Davis, an attorney and founding partner of the Davis Bozeman Law Firm, said it's important for progressive activists to build an inclusive movement.

“Those of us who want to see change, we have to be willing to support all of these different movements. And that’s a challenge,” Davis said.

Race poses a challenge to developing an inclusive movement, he added later.

“One of the issues is that white privilege and white supremacy have to be dealt with and they have to be dealt with even by well meaning liberal minded white folks,” Davis said. “I don’t see it happening enough.”

Panelists also urged people to get involved.

“It’s time to get involved. It’s time to hold our local officials accountable,” Griggs said.

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