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State House leaders on Monday packed a subcommittee with nonmembers to help vote down a bid to extend civil rights protections to gay, lesbian and transgender Georgians.
A House Judiciary subcommittee voted 6-4 to defeat an amendment from state Rep. Taylor Bennett, D-Brookhaven, to bar discrimination in Georgia based on “religion, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, or veteran’s status.”
The panel then agreed by voice vote to pass House Bill 849 on to the full Judiciary Committee, which will take it up Tuesday.
“I’m a little bit concerned with this amendment at this time,” said the subcommittee’s chairman, state Rep. Johnnie Caldwell Jr., R-Thomaston. “If we define people and set out groups without having groups defined in the bill, we may leave somebody behind. I’m a little bit dubious at this time as to why we need the amendment now.”
The 6-4 vote only occurred with outside help. Two of those “no” votes came from state Reps. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, and Joe Wilkinson, R-Dunwoody, who are members of the Judiciary Committee, but not this particular subcommittee. The final vote against the amendment came from House Majority Whip Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City.
Without those votes, the amendment would have passed 4-3.
House rules allow members of committees to vote on any subcommittee. Those rules also allow the speaker pro tem, majority leader and majority whip to vote on any committee or subcommittee. It only happens on rare occasions and typically only when House leadership is concerned a vote might not go the way it wishes.
HB 849, introduced by state Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, would make Georgia law mirror federal statutes to protect Georgians against discrimination in hotels, restaurants, theaters and other public accommodations based on race, color, religion or natural origin.
The bill “plugs a hole” in the law regarding discrimination in public accommodations, including places such as hotels and restaurants, and it would provide the same protections already in federal law, Golick said.
If approved, Golick’s bill would allow Georgians to sue for discriminatory practices in state court.
Georgia is one of four or five states that doesn’t have one of these laws, he said.
Monday’s meeting began smoothly, with Golick encountering no opposition. It only went haywire after Bennett, elected late last year, offered his amendment.
He said he wanted to “create a more inclusive class of protected individuals inside this legislation. All tax-paying Georgians this legislation would affect deserve to reap the fruits of their labor.”
State Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold, seemed flummoxed by part of the amendment.
“Could you just define — maybe I just live too far in the woods, but I’m not sure what gender identity is and what group of people that defines,” he said. “Could you help me understand that?”
Bennett replied: “There is a large population of people that suffer discrimination on what psychologists, medical professionals, have identified as gender identity disorder. They do suffer from discrimination. These definitions are included to ensure these people are not left behind in the language of this legislation.”
Anthony Kreis, a University of Georgia constitutional scholar and gay rights activist, said he was disappointed in how the vote occurred.
“The fact that the cards were stacked against LGBT Georgians from the get-go is discouraging and goes to show that despite recent gains in the courts, the LGBT community remains vulnerable in the General Assembly,” Kreis said. “Sadly, but for some folks putting their thumbs on the scales, we could have made progress toward making Georgia a welcoming place for all.”
Later, Bennett said there’s still time for his amendment to pass.
“While I am disappointed that an amendment to extend House Bill 849’s proposed anti-discrimination laws to all citizens failed to pass today’s subcommittee, I am hopeful that our proposal will be met with greater support in the days ahead,” he said.