February 18, 2015
The Honorable Nathan Deal, Governor
The Honorable David Schafer, Senate President Pro Tempore
The Honorable David Rolston, Speaker of the House
Georgia State Capitol
Atlanta, Georgia 30334
Dear Governor Deal, President Pro Tempore Shafer, and Speaker Rolston:
As leaders of organizations committed to advancing equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, we are writing to express our serious concerns about Georgia House Bill 218, the “Preventing Government Overreach on Religious Expression Act.” As drafted, this legislation invites and legitimizes further discrimination of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Last year, legislation similar to HB 218 passed the Arizona legislature but was vetoed by former Governor Jan Brewer following an outcry from businesses, sports organizations, and LGBT advocates. At the heart of this outcry was a simple message: Arizona should be open and welcoming to all people, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
The passage of HB 218 or a similar measure will send a loud message across the country that Georgia is an unwelcoming place for LGBT Americans. Such a message threatens the state’s ability to recruit and retain the best and brightest workers, secure corporate relocations that spur the economy, support innovative entrepreneurship, and further develop its thriving travel and tourism industry. All of us have organizational members in Georgia; like them, we want Georgia’s brand to remain welcoming to all.
Freedom of religion is one of our most fundamental rights as Americans. That’s why it’s protected in the state and federal constitution. But that freedom does not give any of us the right to harm or discriminate against others.
One of the very real consequences of HB 218, as it’s currently written, is that it opens the door to increased discrimination against LGBT Georgians—by both individuals and corporations.
If enacted, government employees could refuse to serve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. A homeless shelter that receives government funding to provide social services could refuse shelter to same-sex couple by saying it goes against its religious beliefs. A guidance counselor could refuse to help a transgender teenager by saying it goes against her religious beliefs. Government officials who have sworn an oath to serve the public shouldn’t be able to pick and choose who they’re going to serve based on their religious beliefs—but HB 218 could allow them to do just that.
HB 218 could also allow businesses and corporations to discriminate; unless the bill explicitly states that it does not apply to for-profit entities, O.C.G.A. § 1-2-1 and decisions of the Georgia Supreme Court—which define a “person” to include corporations and businesses—will apply. Thus, a hotel owner could point to HB 218 as justification for refusing to provide a room to a same-sex couple. A restaurant could deny service to a group of LGBT patrons. A hospital could refuse to provide medical care or information to a transgender person. Businesses that are open to the public should be open to everyone on the same terms, including to customers who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender—but HB 218 could open the door to businesses refusing service to someone simply because of who they are or who they love.
This law would allow individuals and corporations to claim that their religious beliefs allow them to refuse to follow laws that prohibit discrimination in employment and public services. Georgia does not want a broad, ill-defined law that could allow some people to use one set of religious beliefs to hurt or discriminate against others.
The Family Research Council and the Faith and Freedom Coalition have been two the most vocal organizations calling for legislation like HB 218 to be enacted in Georgia and other states. Both organizations have a long history of extreme intolerance toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Their interest in advancing legislation of this nature has risen only recently, just as marriage for same-sex couples is sweeping across the country. We do not believe this to be a coincidence. We believe they’re seeking to create a “license to discriminate” against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Although they haven’t been able to clearly articulate any immediate or urgent need for this legislation, Family Research Council and the Faith and Freedom Coalition have pointed to the firing of former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran as the key reason why this bill is needed. The City of Atlanta terminated Chief Cochran for distributing material to his subordinates at work without permission. In these materials, Cochran described LGBT people as “vile” and “vulgar.” He described being gay as a “perversion,” in addition to other out-of-touch and harmful remarks about women and Jewish people. He gave these materials to his employees unsolicited. Proponents of HB 218 hope that this legislation will protect others who, like Chief Cochran, force their religious beliefs on their employees.
As Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said at the time, there needs to be “an environment in government where everyone, no matter who they love, can come to work from 8 to 5:30, do their job, and go home without fear of being discriminated against… This isn’t just about the LGBT community, this is about how we treat each other.” Any legislation that could allow discrimination against anyone isn’t following one of our most important values—treating others the way we want to be treated.
We urge you to reject HB 218—to ensure that Georgia’s brand remains welcoming, that discrimination against LGBT people isn’t invited, and that everyone is treated fairly and with respect.
American Civil Liberties Union
Believe Out Loud
Bisexual Resource Center
The Center For Black Equity
CenterLink: The Community of LGBT Centers
Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals
Family Equality Council
Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN)
GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBT Equality
Human Rights Campaign
International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission
Marriage Equality USA
National Center for Transgender Equality
National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs
National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC)
National LGBTQ Task Force
National Minority AIDS Council
National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA)
Pride At Work
Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE)
Trans People of Color Coalition