A cold wind and flurries did not deter several hundred people from rallying midday Tuesday, Feb. 9, at the state Capitol’s Liberty Plaza against religious liberty legislation they say could legalize discrimination.
Speakers from various faiths led the protest of eight bills in the General Assembly that could allow certain discriminatory practices, especially against the LGBT community, under the veil of religious freedom.
“We are here to turn up the heat on this very chilly day,” said Jeff Graham, the executive director of Georgia Equality. “Our focus is that these religious exemption bills are bad not just for Georgia, but dangerous for so many of us. Bills created in this session would create exemptions so that some would not have to follow the same laws as the rest of us. That is dangerous territory.”
The rally was part of the revived fight over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. RFRA was shelved last year after Rep. Mike Jacobs added nondiscrimination language in the House Judiciary Committee, but that bill now is joined by several written in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage in June.
On Feb. 2, rabbis joined an impromptu news conference organized at the Capitol by Faith in Public Life to respond to a Georgia Baptist Convention event supporting the bills.
Georgia and Mississippi are the only states without civil rights protections, and Georgia is one of five with no legislation covering rights in public accommodations, Graham said.
Calling it “moral ineptitude,” Simone Bell of Lambda Legal said Tuesday: “Too many of our state senators and representatives are spending our tax dollars in the name of their distorted and ideological views of Christianity.”
She called it a travesty that so many people who revere the Constitution “only do so until such time as it does not fit their old and tired narratives of who is worthy of protection.”
Rebecca Stapel-Wax, the executive director of SOJOURN, told the AJT that Georgians and their legislators need to know discrimination is not tolerated. “If you discriminate against one group of people, then everyone is at risk, and it’s critical that we are all very strong about that.”
Rabbi Pamela Gottfried, a teacher at the Weber School, said Jews have an obligation to protect everyone.
“These bills use words like freedom and protection to misdirect our attention away from their true purpose, which is to allow discrimination under the guise of religion. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, these bills seek to harm the most vulnerable in our society. I cannot sit idly by while my neighbors are threatened. We must intervene,” she told the crowd.
“People have to speak about discrimination and what compassion looks like, and this is not what it looks like,” SOJOURN Chair Leanne Rubenstein said. “We need to treat each other fairly, and we have to tell our lawmakers that this is mistake. If we don’t show up, nobody knows what we’re thinking. I’m tired of wasting time on legislation on discrimination when we have so many other things to deal with. When we don’t have a hungry child, when we don’t have a homeless person in Georgia, when all kids have a fair education, then we’re making progress.”
Hijacking religion for discrimination, Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder said, “is a terrible thing. I believe in the sanctity of all humans, and that includes LGBTQ members of the community.”
Rabbi Malka Packer, the director of InterfaithFamily/Atlanta, said: “I’m here for basic human rights. Religion for me isn’t about exclusion; it’s about inclusion and how we can support everyone in our world.”
Congregation Bet Haverim member McKenzie Wren said understanding and tolerance are fundamental to Judaism. “If we’re going to bring people together, we have to come from a place of love. If we exclude people, we’re never going to build understanding. Showing support for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, and those who are excluded, is really important to me.”