Georgians Rally Against Oppressive ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill

If it passes, the “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act” will make the state one of the most anti-LGBT places in the country.

03.18.15 9:15 AM ET

ATLANTA, Georgia — Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Georgians had another reason to be drinking yesterday besides the obvious one. A new bill could make Georgia one of the least LGBT-friendly states in the country and there’s less than a month left to stop it.

On a sunny St. Patrick’s Day afternoon, hundreds of LGBT Georgians gathered on Liberty Plaza across from the Georgia State Capitol—known to residents as the “gold dome”—for a rally organized by Georgia Unites Against Discrimination in opposition to the “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (GRFRA).

The GRFRA—also known as SB129—is headed to the Georgia House of Representatives after clearing the Senate by a wide margin and, if passed, it will become what The Daily Beast’s Jay Michaelson has called “the nation’s harshest ‘religious freedom’ law,” granting business owners unprecedented latitude to refuse service to LGBT people and potentially even impeding child abuse investigations.

The law itself makes no reference to these consequences, only citing the need to defend “persons whose religious exercise is substantially burdened by government.” But the intent is clear to LGBT residents based on the implementation of previous RFRAs.

“We know that this is about discrimination,” said Executive Director of Georgia Equality Jeff Graham at the start of the rally.

SB129 is just one of many state-level RFRA laws that have become the religious right’s reactionary response to recent same-sex marriage gains. With a Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage expected this year, the fight over LGBT rights is quickly moving from weddings to wedding cakes—specifically to whether a Christian baker can refuse to make one for a same-sex couple.

But same-sex marriage is not yet legal in Georgia, one of just two states in the U.S. with same-sex marriage bans that have not yet been overturned or sent to the Supreme Court. Georgia also has no state-level protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity, no hate crimes legislation, and it requires costly surgeries for transgender residents who need to amend their sex markers on a driver’s license or birth certificate. If Governor Nathan Deal signs SB129 into law, he will effectively be limiting LGBT protections in Georgia before the state has even granted any.

Atlanta may be the “epicenter of the gay South,” with non-discrimination laws protecting both sexual orientation and gender identity, but Georgia is gearing up to become one of the worst states in the country for LGBT Americans.

The speakers at yesterday’s rally to stop SB129 seemed like an unlikely group of allies: a rabbi, a Republican, a lawyer, a Baptist. One organizer told The Daily Beast that it was “like the start of a bad joke.”

But the diverse array of speakers revealed the breadth of groups who oppose the bill while highlighting the fact that LGBT Georgians will need to make some strange bedfellows to keep it off the governor’s desk.

“I know what it looks like to be discriminated against,” said Reverend Timothy McDonald of First Iconium Baptist Church, from a podium positioned just yards away from a street sign for Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive.

McDonald repeated what would be the theme of the rally for religious LGBT supporters: “No discrimination in my name.”

He was followed by local businessman and Republican David Bachman, 26, owner of men’s necktie retailer Neck Candy Tie Co. Wearing a tie bedecked with an impossible number of American flags, Bachman detailed his opposition to SB129 on the grounds that it would be detrimental to Georgia business owners.

“I will not let a small minority of vocal legislators hijack my state,” said Bachman. He called the bill “closing the door on members of the LGBT community.”

Macon Circuit District Attorney David Cooke took the podium next, adding, “The arrogance and disingenuousness of those who push this bill will never be forgotten.”

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The bill has gained momentum through some suspect political maneuvering. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that SB 129 was pushed through committee in the Senate when an opponent, Georgia State Senator Vincent Fort (D), was in the bathroom.

Rabbi Joshua Heller concluded the rally, calling himself an “unlikely speaker” for the event. But for local media covering the event, he stole the show.

“We do not ask those with whom we come into contact to conform to structures of Jewish law,” said Heller. “I have never demanded that the Bulldogs in Athens not handle a pigskin on the Sabbath.”

But the laughter that this hometown joke elicited quickly dissipated as organizers packed up the podium and legislators returned to work under the gold dome.

While LGBT Georgians continue to write emails and flood phone lines, the fate of SB129 remains uncertain in the House. On one hand, Speaker David Ralston (R) has been skeptical of SB129 in recent comments on Georgia public television.

“If a constitutional guarantee is not sufficient, then what is this bill, this statute, going to do that our constitution doesn’t do?” Ralston asked, while being careful to add that he does not believe there is “any ill motive behind the bill.”

But Ralston’s caution has already earned him the ire of those further to his right. Erick Erickson of RedState has concluded from his comments that “Speaker of the House David Ralston does not believe Christians need their faith protected” and that Ralston is “willing to see Christians surrender their ability to live their faith outside of 11 AM to noon on Sunday.” The religious right in Georgia will be making phone calls as well.

State Senator Fort is optimistic about defeating SB129, telling The Daily Beast after the rally: “I think we’re in a good position to beat it.”

But Fort worries that the GOP in Georgia might have more in common with Erickson than with Ralston: “Here in Georgia—especially at the State Capitol—the Republican Party has gone way right, even more so than when they first took over in 2003.”

Whatever the fate of SB129 here in Georgia, RFRA laws are being proposed in several states, creating a particularly challenging political terrain for LGBT organizers.

“We’re seeing them come very quickly and from all over the country,” Human Rights Campaign Board of Governors member Brad DiFiore told me. “Just marshaling the resources to address each of them is very difficult.”

As for SB129, there are only a few weeks remaining in the state legislative session, which ends on April 2. By that point, LGBT Georgians will know whether or not they have to check and see which St. Patrick’s Day watering holes will serve them and which will turn them away at the door.