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Athens LGBT Community: ‘Religious Liberty’ Bills Are a License to Discriminate

LGBT community members and allies in Athens worry that, if the Georgia legislature passes a “religious liberty” bill, businesses could refuse to serve them, and they could even be left to die in the streets if they fall ill.

Supporters of House Bill 218 and Senate Bill 129 say the legislation would protect Christians from being forced to do something that’s against their religion. But freedom-of-religion protections already exist, so the bills seem unnecessary, says DeeDee Kane, who chairs UGA GLOBES (Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual Employees and Supporters).

“[The bills] seem to be driven by people’s fears, instead of anything that needs to be put in place,” Kane says.

“These religious liberty bills seem to set up a false conflict between Christians that seem to be concerned about LGBT citizens of Georgia getting extra privileges when, in fact, it is just the privilege of not being discriminated against,” she says.

State lawmakers are drafting “religious liberty” bills all over the country, because people have misconceptions about discrimination, Kane says. Serving a member of the LGBT community at a business does not infringe on religion, but denying them service is discrimination, she says.

“If you own a business and you deny a service to someone, that is discrimination,” Kane says. “To give people the opportunity to impose their religious views in a public arena or a civic arena is not the foundational core of this country.

If I needed emergency services, and I was too obviously queer or transgender looking, would I then die?

“We do have discrimination protection from the U.S. Constitution and from the Georgia Constitution. Those measures are already in place to protect people from discrimination.”

House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican, recently made a similar statement about HB 218: “What does this bill do that the Constitution doesn’t do?”

Right now, many LGBT people in Athens say they feel comfortable patronizing local businesses and aren’t discriminated against.

“I feel that I can go anywhere in Athens comfortably and safely,” Kane says. “I think in Athens, because of the progressive culture that we have, we are somewhat insulated from these conservative discriminatory attacks.”

But that could change. Passage of the legislation would set a perilous precedent, says Steven Edwards, an ambassador for the LGBT Resource Center at UGA. Edwards says he already experiences “micro-aggressions,” such as people using the wrong pronoun to refer to him as a transgender man. If a religious liberty law were to pass, Edwards, a Type 1 diabetic, fears even more dangerous kinds of discrimination.

“I would worry about if I needed emergency services, and I was too obviously queer or [transgender] looking, would I then die? That might be a little stressful,” Edwards says.

The bill could also provide legal justification for a guidance counselor refusing to help a gay student, a landlord not renting to a single mother or a police officer refusing to protect a mosque, Robbie Medwed, the assistant director for Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity, said at a meeting with the UGA Young Democrats last month.

Edwards also worries that workplace discrimination would worsen, because Georgia law does not protect LGBT workers. In fact, right now, businesses might not face any repercussions if they refused to serve an unprotected class of people, according to Kent Barnett, a UGA consumer law professor. Not many protective laws exist in the U.S., especially in conservative states such as Georgia, Barnett says. However, municipal laws specific to one city could exist in more liberal areas in Georgia, he says. (Athens-Clarke County law protects local government employees based on sexual orientation.)

Two weeks ago, a Senate committee shocked observers by voting down SB 129, even though it’s sponsored by the committee chairman, Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus). Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) turned against the bill after McKoon refused to consider an amendment clarifying that child abusers could not use religion to justify their actions.

“I wanted to make that clear, that the government does have a compelling state interest to prevent discrimination and to protect our children,” Cowsert was quoted as saying in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. (Flagpole’s attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.)

But Monday, in a surprise move, the committee passed the bill while the lone Democrat was taking a bathroom break.

If one of the bills were to pass, wedding-related businesses contacted by Flagpole say they wouldn’t discriminate. Jefferson Passet, owner of CareAway Cakes and Gifts, says, “of course” he’d cater a gay wedding. “We would absolutely do it, because they should be able to get married, and we would appreciate their business,” Passet says.

Independent Baking Co. manager Jessica Tiges also says the bakery would cater a same-sex wedding. “I would have absolutely no problem catering any wedding at all,” Tiges says.

Petals on Prince, a florist in Athens, has had at least one same-sex wedding client already, Ella Deguzmen, a manager, says. “It’s none of our business, the situation of our customers,” Deguzmen says. “We just provide the service.”