Opinion: Georgia should not protect anti-gay bigotry

The battle against anti-gay bigotry is far from won, but the trend is clear. All over the country, the notion that gay, lesbian and transgender Americans are second-class citizens who can be legally discriminated against is giving way to a recognition that liberty and freedom cannot be denied on the basis of sexual identity.

However, some here in Georgia still seek to push our state in the opposite direction, and at the moment their vehicle is Senate Bill 375, the so-called “Keep Faith in Adoption and Foster Care Act.”

Under the bill, which passed the Senate last month by a party-line vote of 35-19, faith-based adoption agencies would be given the authority to refuse to help gay Georgians adopt a child if doing so conflicts with “the agencies’ sincerely held religious beliefs,” presumably against gay marriage.

Religious liberty is a foundational value of this country; its protection is critical, and government should never interfere with its free expression. The problem is that in this and similar cases, these faith-based agencies are performing secular services that ought to be available to all Georgians, not merely to those favored by such agencies.

Like their secular counterparts, these faith-based adoption and foster-care agencies are acting as agents of the state, as an extension of the state. They are basically vendors, using state taxpayer dollars under state contracts to perform the state-government function of screening prospective parents and placing children in homes where they will be protected and loved.

So when those agencies discriminate against gay couples wanting to adopt, when they tell gay Georgians volunteering to raise a child and create a family that they are not morally capable of carrying out that basic human function, those agencies are speaking as the agents of the state of Georgia.

They are speaking and acting not just for themselves but for us, for you and I.

To make that distinction even more stark, faith-based adoption agencies in the state acknowledge that they already discriminate in such a fashion. Doing so is not banned by current law, because no state law in Georgia bans any form of discrimination against the gay and lesbian community, and what is not banned is allowed.

So what these agencies want from the Legislature through SB 375 is more than mere tolerance of what they already do. What they seek is explicit legal approval from the state for that anti-gay discrimination. They recognize the symbolic importance of getting that approval written into state law, of being able to say that the state of Georgia approves their right to discriminate on the basis of sexual identity.

If Georgia does that — if that is the message it decides to send — it will have consequences. To cite the example of the moment, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made his sentiment on the issue pretty clear in 2012 when he donated $2.5 million to boost passage of a gay-marriage initiative in Washington state. Georgia’s future as a hotbed of the film industry would also be affected.

The fate of SB 375 now sits in the House, where Speaker David Ralston has been wary of its passage but hasn’t opposed it. If it passes the House, it would then go to Gov. Nathan Deal, who has a history of trying to moderate his party’s excesses and would probably veto it.

However, Deal is leaving office at the end of the year, and it’s cause for worry that none of the Republican candidates to replace him have demonstrated the strength and wisdom to continue playing that role.