September 28, 2016

Georgia Prospers When Businesses Don't Discriminate

City Dope

Photo Credit: Ken Lund/Flickr

Last year, Georgia was one of a number of Republican-run states that considered a “religious freedom” bill that critics said would have legitimized discrimination against the LGBT community. The controversial bill split conservatives: Fundamentalist Christians supported it, while Chamber of Commerce types argued it’d be ruinous for business.

Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the bill, but the fact that it even made it to his desk was a blow to the state’s reputation. Now Deal’s former press secretary has joined forces with an influential ex-lawmaker to convince the world that Georgia doesn’t discriminate.

Georgia Prospers—founded by Brian Robinson, who left Deal’s office last year to start his own public relations firm, and former Senate Majority Leader Ronnie Chance (R-Tyrone), now a corporate lobbyist—is working to get at least 1,000 Georgia businesses to sign a pledge stating they “treat everyone with fairness and equality and promote inclusion and a welcoming atmosphere, because it’s the right thing to do, and it’s good for business,” Robinson said.

After Gov. Pat McCrory signed a similar bill, North Carolina lost numerous major sporting events (including the NBA All-Star Game and NCAA and ACC basketball tournaments), corporate expansions (including PayPal and Deutsche Bank) and conventions. Meanwhile, Deal’s office has announced 18,000 new jobs since he vetoed Georgia’s religious freedom bill. “We are getting these [jobs], and we would not be if Gov. Deal had gone in a different direction,” Robinson said.

They have some hard truths for Christians who feel they’re on the firing line, that they can be jailed for their religious beliefs and their pastors forced to perform gay marriages: “In Georgia, people of faith are protected,” Robinson said.

“We do have religious freedom in Georgia, and we can do that without discrimination,” Chance said.

So far, about 600 businesses have signed the pledge, and Georgia Prospers is looking for hundreds more across the state, including in Athens (where Robinson is teaching a public affairs class at UGA). “It doesn’t have to be Caterpillar,” Robinson said. “We want small business, mom and pop, international corporations.”

For most businesses, the pledge is a no-brainer. “It’s standard operating procedure for every business today,” Chance said. “Look in the HR manual.”

But companies that are considering locating in Georgia still want reassurances. “They don’t understand [the religious freedom bill],” Chance said. “When I talk to them, they’re like, ‘Why is this an issue?’”

In particular, millennials are the most tolerant, nonjudgmental generation, and they don’t want to live or work in a place that’s even perceived as bigoted, according to Robinson.

He noted, though, that Georgia has no law against discrimination. Although because of Georgia Prosper’s nonprofit status he can’t advocate for such legislation, he also noted that many cities, including Atlanta, have their own anti-discrimination laws. “They are using the non-discrimination ordinance as a hook for business,” Robinson said. “It is a magnet.”

Yet Athens-Clarke County Mayor Nancy Denson, who calls herself “the economic development mayor” and is fond of declaring that Athens is “open for business,” will not let the ACC Commission vote on an anti-discrimination ordinance that only regulates bars, making it relatively toothless compared to Atlanta’s. And not because it’s too weak, but because some commissioners want to strengthen it.

Last week, for the second month in a row, Denson pulled the proposed ordinance off the commission’s agenda. She said she is concerned about a proposal to include restaurants in the ordinance—she doesn’t want them included, and she also doesn’t want commissioners rewriting the ordinance on the floor without vetting or public comment.

“I’m not sure what to do with it,” Denson told Flagpole. “I haven’t decided when or if it’s coming back yet.”

Her concerns about legislating on the fly are legit, but that’s not what commissioners were planning to do. Commissioner Kelly Girtz said he was floating a proposal to pass the ordinance as written and to assign a committee to consider forming a “civil rights commission,” a diverse board of citizens who would investigate claims of discrimination and make policy recommendations to the Mayor and Commission. In committee, the idea could be properly vetted and debated before sending it back to the full commission for public comment and a final vote.

Instead of working to gain support for Girtz’s proposal, which would have addressed her concerns, Denson yanked the ordinance off the agenda. And unless the public pressures her or commissioners to do what they’ve been reluctant to do for years and force it back on, I suspect it’ll join the Prince Avenue road diet, zoning changes to address downtown development and affordable housing, marijuana decriminalization and the green building code in the graveyard of progressive policy ideas the mayor has blocked.