One of the leaders of the Georgia opposition to the proposed First Amendment Defense Act and other legislation related to the tabled Religious Freedom Restoration Act is Jeff Graham, the executive director of Georgia Equality.
Graham has waged a constant fight online and in the Capitol against the legislation in the belief that it would legalize discrimination against the LGBT community, same-sex marriage, and, in the case of FADA, many others who might run afoul of some people’s faith-based morality.
As the General Assembly enters the final stretch of the 2016 session, Graham and his allies will get a break from the battle for one night when he’s honored with the Michael Jay Kinsler Rainmaker Award at the 10th annual Purim off Ponce, the costume party and fundraiser for SOJOURN: Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity.
“Jeff has been a strong supporter of SOJOURN for many years,” SOJOURN Executive Director Rebecca Stapel-Wax said when announcing the award in the fall. “He was instrumental in our transition into a fully independent 501(c)(3) organization, and he has been strong partner in our advocacy and education work across the South. We couldn’t think of a better honoree as we celebrate 10 years of Purim off Ponce and 15 years of hard work across the region.”
Graham also took a brief break to answer a few questions.
AJT: How has the reality of the General Assembly’s RFRA/FADA-type legislation and the related debate compared with your expectations this session?
Graham: We knew going into this session that it would probably be the most anti-LGBT session we had seen since the constitutional ban on marriage was passed in 2004; we were prepared. The sheer volume and breadth of bills introduced to establish broad religious exemptions have been a record. So far we have had nearly a dozen bills introduced that could open the door for religion to be used as an excuse to promote bias against others. And many of these bills have implications beyond the LGBT community and would extend to unmarried couples, interfaith couples, single parents, members of minority faiths and women. Thankfully, we have a strong coalition that includes hundreds of faith leaders, businesses and social justice advocates. As the session enters its final weeks, the number of bills we are actively concerned about will begin to focus on three or four bills that could make it into law.
It’s important for people to realize that these types of legislative attacks are not isolated to Georgia or the South. National organizations that track this legislation, such as the Equality Federation, Freedom for All Americans and the Human Rights Campaign, report that over 120 anti-LGBT bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country this year alone. It is clearly an organized opposition to the recent advancements that gay and transgender people have made in gaining social acceptance and legal protections.
AJT: How have you felt about the response from rabbis and other religious leaders?
Graham: We would not be successful if it weren’t for the dedication and support of the broader faith community. After one critical vote, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle tweeted that the vote represented a “victory over radical atheist organizations.” Having leaders from dozens of Jewish and Christian faith traditions standing united makes an important statement that standing against discrimination is not standing against religion or faith. Rabbis and other leaders within the Jewish community have been especially important. Not only has the Jewish community been unified in opposition to these bills; it’s so critical that the media and our elected leaders be reminded that “people of faith” is not a term reserved only for Christians or only for Christians of a certain denomination. Many of us from minority faith traditions have ceded that term to political forces with an extremely conservative agenda. It’s time to reclaim that phrase for all of us.
AJT: We saw this fight last year before the Supreme Court decision. We’re seeing this fight this year after the Supreme Court decision. What will it take for Georgia to move beyond “religious liberty” as a dominant issue in the legislature every year?
Graham: We have advocated taking this debate in a different direction entirely. Few people realize that outside a fair housing statute, Georgia is one of five states without a civil rights law of any kind. People are also surprised to learn that there are no federal laws that explicitly provide protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We know that people within the LGBT community experience discrimination on a regular basis and that the fear of discrimination is even more widespread. That is why we need to change these laws to provide protection. However, if some people of faith have similar concerns, let us all come together and work on developing a Georgia civil rights law that can address the concerns of the LGBT community as well as people of faith, women, racial and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and those who worry their age may leave them vulnerable. There is no reason that when we talk about civil rights and discrimination that there need be winners and losers.
Furthermore, those who say that some of these laws simply mirror the federal 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act that had broad bipartisan support in Congress need to recognize that this support was a result of the process that was used to create the legislation. For a period of three years or more, organizations from all sides of the religious and political spectrum came together to iron out their differences and find compromises that all sides could agree to. If people are truly interested in addressing discrimination in all of its forms, and not simply making comments that incite fear in an effort to garner votes or push a narrow political agenda, then I hope that they will be open to changing the dynamics and tone of the debate in future years.
AJT: Purim off Ponce falls at the height of the legislative session. Is it a distraction? A much-needed release? A parallel universe to the world under the Golden Dome?
Graham: It is a much-needed release from the day-to-day struggles at the legislature, and it creates at least one night when we can all come together, regardless of our religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or even ability to pull together a decent outfit, to celebrate and support the great work of SOJOURN.
AJT: What does it mean to you to be the honoree for the 10th anniversary Purim off Ponce?
Graham: I couldn’t be more humbled to be this year’s honoree. I have known and respected so many of the previous honorees, and SOJOURN is an organization that is near and dear to my heart. My mother is coming in from out of state to attend and has been learning about Purim from her Jewish friends, which fills my heart with joy. I just hope I can pull off the costume to do the event justice!
What: Purim off Ponce
Where: Le Fais do-do, 1161 Ellsworth Industrial Ave., Atlanta
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, March 5
Tickets: $75 in advance, $100 at the door; www.sojourngsd.org/purim