More than a half-century after passage of the federal Civil Rights Act, the state of Georgia has finally begun the process of passing its own guarantee against racial, religious or ethnic discrimination. If enacted, House Bill 849 would finally make it illegal under state law to discriminate in public accommodations against people "on the ground of race, color, religion or national origin."
Even though federal law already outlaws such discrimination, there's value in doing so at the state level. It is also timely. Just in the past few months, our governor has attempted to discriminate on the basis of national origin by barring people of Syrian origin from settling here, backing down only when it became clear that he had no legal authority to do so. Local governments have also come under pressure from religious bigots to prevent the construction or expansion of mosques.
In such an environment, a state law signed by that same governor would put Georgia on record that we are a better place than such incidents suggest. But even now, we stubbornly refuse to get it right. We still refuse to do the right thing, even when the right thing is glaringly apparent.
The history here is important. Back in 1964, the leadership of Georgia was steadfastly, adamantly and almost unanimously against passage of the Civil Rights Act. Both Georgia senators and all but one of its congressmen fought the legislation. In the Senate, U.S. Sen. Richard B. Russell, for whom the federal building in downtown Atlanta is named, led a long and bitter filibuster, arguing that white Southerners had a "natural right to discriminate" that superseded the right of others to be treated equally. The Civil Rights Act, as Russell put it, was "an unconstitutional infringement upon one's right to choose his associates...."
Today, the sponsors of HB 849 see it as a chance to set that awkward history right. But something is missing from the bill; something that obviously ought to be there is not there. This is 2016. If you're going to finally pass a state anti-discrimination statute in 2016, 52 years after the fact, shouldn't it also include a guarantee against discrimination against gay and transgender Georgians?
In a House subcommittee meeting on Monday, subcommittee members were ready to add such language to HB 849 when House leaders intervened. Employing a loophole in House rules, House members not serving on that subcommittee were allowed to vote on and kill the proposal, ensuring that gay Georgians would not get the protection of their state government.
That power move was a statement, a clear and obvious statement in defense of continued anti-gay discrimination. House leaders intervened to protect the "right" to discriminate legally against gay people, just as Russell and his colleagues fought in 1964 to preserve their "natural right" to discriminate on the basis of race. They voted to allow gay Georgians to be fired because they are gay; they voted to allow them to be barred from service at restaurants or hotels because they are gay.
In an effort to demonstrate that the lessons of 50 years ago have been learned, Georgia legislators are instead proving the opposite.