A standoff between the city of Atlanta and a local country club that doesn't want to give spousal benefits to same-sex domestic partners has Republican state lawmakers planning to prevent the city from enforcing a local law that forbids antigay discrimination.
Rep. Earl Ehrhart, a Republican and new chairman of the powerful rules committee, introduced a bill Wednesday that would block Georgia cities from punishing groups that want to exclude gays and lesbians. Atlanta Democrats accused conservative lawmakers of hypocrisy: upholding local control unless they disagree with local decisions. "Atlanta is under attack," said Democratic representative Bob Holmes, chairman of the Fulton County delegation.
Ehrhart insists he is just sticking up for the constitutional right of free association--the same principle that the U.S. Supreme Court said allows the Boy Scouts of America to exclude gay and atheist members and staff.
The fight centers on the Druid Hills Golf Club, near Emory University, which is fighting against a possible city fine of up to $90,000 for not granting spousal benefits demanded by two members who have same-sex partners, one a gay man and one a lesbian. Mayor Shirley Franklin and gay rights activists have argued that while the club has a right to exclude gay members and their partners, it has no right to city permits and can't compel Atlanta to issue such permits to groups that discriminate.
Ehrhart called the city threat of a fine unconstitutional, saying that private clubs have the right to choose their members. His bill says cities may not penalize or withhold benefits from "any private social organization engaged in lawful expressive association."
"There's certain associative rights that people have," Ehrhart told reporters. "This isn't meant to discriminate against anyone."
In response, Chuck Bowen, executive director of Georgia Equality, the state's largest gay rights organization, told the Los Angeles Times, "Here we have elected officials from very small towns that aren't hosts to major Fortune 500 corporations and don't have an understanding of how they do business. They're telling the city of Atlanta what it can and can't do."
The mayor, who proposed but did not yet impose a $500-a-day fine against the club after her urgings to resolve the matter privately went unheeded, did not immediately have comment on Ehrhart's proposed bill. The measure now heads to the house judiciary committee for consideration.