The Message of Georgia’s “Religious Freedom” Bill: LGBTQ People Don’t Deserve Equal Rights

Georgia state Sen. Greg Kirk, the bill’s lead sponsor.

Last week, as the Georgia legislature debated the Free Exercise Protection Act, a bill designed to gut local nondiscrimination ordinances and enable faith-based organizations that receive taxpayer funding through grants and contracts to use that money to deny services on the basis of religion, I asked a tongue-in-cheek question on Twitter: Where does legislative gay-bashing fit into Georgia’s motto of  “Wisdom, Justice, Moderation”?

As he defended his motivations for the bill, lead sponsor state Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus, said: “When the Supreme Court changed the definition of marriage, dynamics changed. There was a need for a law—for this law.”  While the bill has changed significantly from when it was first introduced (it no longer allows private, for-profit businesses like restaurants and hotels to deny service to LGBTQ people), its basic approach remains the same: Gay couples, and LGBTQ people more broadly, do not deserve to be treated equally in Georgia, because God says so.

When the Supreme Court declared marriage to be a constitutional right for all back in June 2015, I was amazed and proud to see my home state of Georgia not only comply with the decision but embrace it as it celebrated marriage after marriage without any of the noncompliance that happened in Alabama. The Supreme Court said that all legally eligible couples should be allowed to marry and that they should be treated equally under the law, and Georgia agreed. It was a beautiful day.

I’m not naive. I know that there are plenty of people here and across the country who believe my friends and I don’t deserve equal rights, and I know how unhappy the Supreme Court decision made them. Frankly, I don’t care. People are free to think anything they want, and I know that no matter how hard I try, I won’t be able to change every mind. But as long as I have my constitutionally guaranteed rights, what someone else thinks about me really doesn’t matter all that much. If the Georgia legislature gets its way, though, all that will change.

The bill’s proponents are declaring that people who disagree with the Constitution’s authority should not only be protected but elevated above all others. They’ve decided that people whose religious beliefs say that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are sinners and are going to hell should not only be protected (which they already are and should continue to be), but that they should be given preference over all others. 

Sen. Kirk and the supporters of HB757 believe they have a responsibility and the right to tell gay and transgender people they are unworthy of God’s love and unworthy of government protection in the workplace, in the public arena, and when attaining social services. In many smaller municipalities and counties in Georgia, the state contracts with faith-based agencies to provide social services like adoption, food pantries, and homeless shelters. This bill would allow faith organizations to continue to receive government funding even if they use that funding to deny LGBTQ services they provide on behalf of the state.

We would never accept such a subversion of the rule of law in any other circumstance. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s racists never received such protections. Homophobia, transphobia, and racism are all manifestations of the same animus. They are cousins in fear and bigotry, and they deserve to be treated as such. But because there are those who believe the Bible’s supposed definition of marriage should override the government’s definition, we don’t treat them the same, and our state doesn’t treat them the same. (Racism was also once justified by the Bible, as were slavery and segregation, so let’s not pretend this is something new.)

Put yourself in the shoes of the young queer or trans child in Americus, or Columbus, or anywhere else in Georgia, as they listen to their state’s leaders discuss how best to make sure gay families aren’t welcome in Georgia. Imagine the hurt and disappointment a newly married gay couple could face as they go to their local adoption agency, funded by the state but administered by a faith organization, and are told that they are thought to be unworthy to be parents—and the state agrees.

In a country where approximately 40 percent of the young people served by homeless shelters and agencies are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, consider the fear a homeless youth might face as they go from shelter to shelter, hoping to find a bed for the night, as they’re told the price for admittance is to renounce their sexuality and have a fundamentalist faith thrust upon them.

As many as 41 percent of transgender people and 10 to 20 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people attempt suicide due to lack of societal acceptance. A lack of societal acceptance is exactly what HB757 is about. It is a bill designed to ensure that LGBT people are never treated equally in Georgia. It is a bill designed to subvert the rule of law found in the Constitution and the Supreme Court’s authority to interpret it. It is a bill that sends a very clear message: You are not welcome here.

Members of the Kirk camp have called this a “very common sense, live and let live bill.” They say that because it allows discrimination to go both ways—it also allows those who support marriage equality to fire people who don’t share their beliefs—it’s fair. That’s a nonsensical distraction with very real consequences. HB757 allows religious agencies to fire employees whose beliefs differ from their own. Proponents of the bill say that federal civil rights law will cover any truly wrongful termination, but they’re wrong. Traditional Jews believe tattoos are prohibited. A Jewish school could fire a teacher simply for having a tattoo, and the teacher would have no legal recourse, because there are no federal laws protecting people with tattoos—straight or gay. The unintended consequences of this bill reach far and wide.

The Georgia legislature has failed to embody wisdom, it has subverted justice, and it has flaunted its extremism in the worst way possible. I was born here, I grew up here, and I live here. These days, though, I am ashamed to be a Georgian.