Aug Sept 2016
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The Advocate

Georgia Businesses Rally Against 'Religious Freedom' Bill

Greg Kirk
Georgia Senator Greg Kirk; key sponsor of First Amendment Defense Act

Major companies headquartered in Georgia have joined forces to fight a so-called religious freedom bill that is advancing through the state legislature. 

House Bill 757, originally called the Pastor Protection Act, was amended in a state Senate committee last month to include the so-called First Amendment Defense Act, which would allow individuals and faith-based organizations to refuse service to people in relationships they deem objectionable based on a sincerely held “moral or religious conviction.”

The controversial legislation has been described by opponents as a “license to discriminate,” and as “RFRA on steroids,” referring to so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, which ignited nationwide backlash when passed in Indiana and Arkansas last year. Both states subsequently amended their RFRAs to explicitly state that the laws could not be used to discriminate against LGBT people. 

“There is no religious freedom crisis in this country today,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, on a conference call for reporters today. “There is a freedom crisis for LGBT people.”  

Shortly after speaking to reporters on that call, Griffin joined Jeff Graham of Georgia Equality and Georgia Unites Against Discrimination, and Simone Bell of Lambda Legal, to deliver more than 75,000 e-mails asking the state’s Republican governor to oppose the legislation. 

“Today we bring those 75,000 emails to the governor’s office so that he can see where the majority of Georgians stand on this issue,” Graham told Project Q Atlanta. “I hope we can begin to reframe this debate from one about allowing discrimination to one about fighting discrimination against everyone, be they women, racial minorities, the LGBT community or people of faith.”

A coalition of more than 400 businesses is advocating for the bill’s defeat under the banner Georgia Prospers, arguing that “for Georgia businesses to compete for top talent, we must have workplaces and communities that are diverse and welcoming for all people, no matter one’s race, sex, color, national origin, ethnicity, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”

Major companies that have signed on to the Georgia Prospers pledge include Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola, Home Depot, UPS, and Cox Enterprises, all of which have headquarters in Atlanta. 

After the state Senate passed the amended bill February 1, by a margin of 38-14, an international telecommunications company currently based in Decatur, Ga., announced it would leave the state if the legislation became law. 

Describing the bill as “the most ugly piece of pro-discrimination legislation I’ve ever seen,” Kelvin Williams, a gay man of color and a cofounder of 373K Inc., authored a scathing op-ed in The Advocate explaining why he instructed the company’s president and general counsel to “immediately find a new home for this corporation.” Williams continued: 

“Under no circumstances would I want to stay domiciled in this state, paying taxes to this state, this state that has almost legalized hate. With the diverse group that we already have working together, and knowing that our next hire may not meet the requirements of someone’s ‘deeply held religious belief,’ I was not going to take the chance of us not being able to attract the talent we need to keep this company growing.”

The CEO of California-based company Salesforce — an outspoken opponent of Indiana’s RFRA — took a similar stance, threatening to reconsider future company investments in Georgia if HB 757 becomes law. On Friday, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff took to social media to share the results of an informal poll he conducted among Salesforce employees, asking if the company should leave the state if HB 757 was enacted. More than 80 percent of respondents selected “yes, divest from GA.”

In its original form — including only language that protected clergy members from legal ramifications if they refused to marry a same-sex couple — HB 757 passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives unanimously. But because the bill was amended by the Senate, it must pass one additional vote on the House floor before arriving on the governor’s desk. 

For his part, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal has expressed concern over the legislation, telling reporters February 22 that the bill is not yet in its final form. “I don’t comment until things are finalized, and by far, it’s not finalized yet,” Deal said, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 

The bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate, Republican Sen. Greg Kirk (pictured above), has defended the sweeping legislation as a narrowly tailored bill that actually advances “equality,” because it is “providing protections for all beliefs.”  

Speaking to reporters at the state capitol in Atlanta Friday, Kirk said he did not vet his proposal with any LGBT groups prior to introducing it. But, he said, he did run the concept by several of his friends “who now live a gay lifestyle.” The reaction among those friends, Kirk said, was “kind of mixed.” 

“I don’t know if any are going to jump out and cheer for it,” Kirk told Journal-Constitution reporter Bill Torpy when pressed on his informal vetting process. “But they feel the movement has come along so far.”

The reporter was eventually able to convince Kirk to pass his number on to these rumored gay friends so that Torpy could hear from them directly. But what happened next doesn’t bode well for Kirk’s claim about his best buds in same-sex relationships. Torpy writes:

“The senator took my info and said he’d pass it onto his friends. Later, he messaged me, ‘Bill, the only one, and there are only three, that I thought would speak with you said no.’

“Part of me wanted to head to his district to search out those friends, but I figured it would be akin to a six-hour round trip in search of a leprechaun — a low-percentage outing. I mean, I’m sure there are gay people in the 13th District, and I’m sure there are friends of Senator Kirk there, too. But finding people who are both?

“Religion, morality and politics are all divisive issues among friends and family, so I really don’t want to get Senator Kirk crosswise with his gay friends.”

Aashna Malpani contributed to this report. 

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