Last week, the Georgia state Senate voted 38-14 in favor of a bill that turns religion into a shield to excuse anti-gay bigotry, and that allows the use of state tax dollars to carry out such anti-gay bigotry.
As is usual in such legislation, advocates deny its true intent. "Nothing in the bill will allow a public employee to neglect their responsibilities in service to the public," state Sen. Greg Kirk wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday. "Nothing in the bill permits discrimination."
But as usual, what advocates say is quite different from what the legislation in question -- in this case House Bill 757 -- would actually do. Kirk's claim is blatantly false, and on several counts. For example, it is false in its claim that the bill does not permit discrimination, because permitting discrimination is its clear and obvious mission. In fact, when offered amendments last week that would clarify the bill's supposed intent not to legalize discrimination, Kirk and others refused to allow those amendments to be voted upon.
As a result, HB 757 would gut local legislation in Atlanta and elsewhere that attempts to protect gay Georgians against discrimination. A landlord who wants to deny housing to a gay couple, an employer who wants to fire a gay worker, or an employer who wants to deny health insurance and other benefits to a legally gay couple would be free to do so under state law as long as he or she cited religious belief as the reason for doing so.
Nor does the bill deal exclusively with gay marriage as an issue. Instead, it creates a faith-based excuse to discriminate against gay people as a class, regardless of whether they are or wish to be legally married. The bill allows religious-based discrimination by those who believe "that marriage should only be between a man and a woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a union (emphasis mine)." In other words, simply being gay is cause enough to be targeted for legalized bigotry.
The bill does include a provision barring government employees from acting upon their own anti-gay bias, as did Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis in Kentucky. But it nonetheless opens the door wide for discrimination from another tax-funded source.
The state of Georgia and local governments contract regularly with faith-based organizations to provide public services. That's fine; those groups often do important work. But in such cases, the faith-based organizations are acting as agents of the state, performing state functions using state taxpayer dollars. Under HB 757, those agencies will be free to deny those taxpayer-funded services, such as adoption, to gay Georgians, and those Georgians who aredenied services that they paid for by their own tax dollars would have no legal recourse through state law.
Two more points:
1.) The bill is likely to have serious economic repercussions, as the example of Indiana has demonstrated. Companies do not want to relocate to or do business in states that establish themselves as havens for anti-gay bigotry, and a national boycott is already being organized. The film industry, which has plans to open several major studios in the state, is particularly vulnerable. The fact that this legislation is hitting the headlines just as the SEC presidential primary looms, with the political attention of the nation switching to Georgia and the South, only compounds the danger.
To quell the outrage, Indiana was forced to immediately rescind the law and in fact pass a law that for the first time gave gay citizens protection under anti-discrimination legislation. A similar backlash can be expected here.
2.) Some have argued that the state ought to pass such legislation anyway, consequences be damned, because they believe it's the right thing to do. The problem is, HB 757 would almost certainly be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Romer v. Evans, a 6-3 ruling from 20 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Colorado law that created a special exemption allowing gay Americans to be targeted for discrimination. The court ruled that such laws are unconstitutional because they do not give all citizens equal protection.
"If the constitutional conception of 'equal protection of the laws' means anything, it must at the very least mean that a bare desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest," the court held. (As an aside, a private attorney by the name of John Roberts volunteered his time back in 1996 to assist those trying to get that Colorado law struck down. Today, Roberts serves that same Supreme Court as chief justice. So that approach is not likely to get a friendlier hearing more than 20 years later.)
In other words, if we want to enact show legislation that does nothing but give politicians a chance to posture, make Georgia a national embarrassment and almost ensure an economic boycott that could do significant harm to the state, then yes, the House of Representatives ought to follow the lead of the Senate.
Otherwise, it should let it die the quiet death it deserves.