Evangelist Franklin Graham condemned secularism and same-sex marriage at a prayer rally attended by thousands in downtown Atlanta Wednesday, speaking just across the street from the state Capitol amid a contentious debate there over “religious liberty” legislation.
Graham, the older son of evangelist Billy Graham, did not mention any of the legislative measures — there are at least eight pending in the statehouse — as he decried political correctness and the push for transgender rights. But he also didn’t have to, since the powerful House Rules Committee had just scheduled the first of those bills, House Bill 757, dubbed the Pastor Protection Act, for a floor vote Thursday.
The Senate Rules Committee is expected on Thursday to take up the second of those bills, dubbed the First Amendment Defense Act of Georgia. The legislation, Senate Bill 284, would enable religious groups and some businesses to opt out of serving gay couples or following government anti-discrimination requirements.
Supporters cast the Georgia legislation as a new line of defense to protect people of any religion from interference or discrimination, particularly if they oppose same-sex marriage. Opponents warn it’s a discriminatory end run around the First Amendment that in some cases would explicitly allow business owners to deny service to gays, lesbians and others on religious grounds.
About 200 of those opponents had shown up at the Capitol on Tuesday to protest the efforts by conservatives to pass the bills. But on Wednesday, a vastly larger crowd celebrated the legislation in one of the biggest evangelical rallies at the Capitol in years.
Braving the biting cold Wednesday, Graham’s audience waved small U.S. flags, prayed aloud and sang “Fill Me Up God” at an overflowing Liberty Plaza, the public rally space that can hold more than 3,000 people across from the state Capitol.
“We are here today because we see our nation is in trouble,” said Graham, whose appearance also coincided with “Georgia Religious Freedom Day,” sponsored by the Faith & Freedom Coalition of Georgia and other groups. “We are in trouble spiritually. We are in trouble racially. We are in trouble economically. And we are in trouble politically.”
Graham then identified the “sins of our nation,” including abortion, same-sex marriage, pride, materialism, racism and not caring for the poor. He called efforts to allow transgender people to use public restrooms for the sex they identify with “wicked.”
“Men belong in men’s bathrooms and women belong in women’s bathrooms,” he said. “And we don’t need men and predators going into women’s bathrooms.”
Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality — he is not related to Franklin Graham — rejected the evangelist’s comments, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.
“His views call for intolerance, hatred and — taken to its logical conclusion — could really be seen as a call to violence or persecution against a small minority that is frankly just trying to live our lives and gain the same legal protections that other Georgians already enjoy,” said Graham, whose group represents gay, bisexual and transgender people.
The business community, too, has launched a public “Georgia Prospers” campaign against the legislation. Nearly 300 companies, including Google, AT&T and Home Depot, say passage of the bills would be a deal-killer and could have a negative economic impact of $1 billion to $2 billion, according to studies by the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“It damages our brand as a welcoming state that’s a great place to do business,” said Ronnie Chance, former state Senate Majority Leader who now heads the business effort. “It also hurts our ability to recruit and retain the skilled workforce that employers need.”
Franklin Graham’s appearance in Atlanta came a day after Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders won decisive victories in the New Hampshire presidential primaries. Evangelical voters could play a critical role in this year’s election. White evangelical Protestants made up 23 percent of the electorate in the 2012 and 2008 presidential elections, according to the Pew Research Center, up from 21 percent in the 2004 contest.
“Your vote counts,” Franklin Graham told the crowd. “It matters. We need the Christians to vote all across this country.”
The evangelist didn’t endorse any candidates. But he urged Christian voters to support candidates who will uphold the “sanctity of life and the sacredness of marriage.” His stop in Atlanta is part of his 50-state “Decision America Tour.”
“The choice might not always be clear,” he said. “And you might just have to vote for the least of the two heathens.”
The Rev. Mike Henderson drove a bus full of about 20 of his fellow churchgoers to Graham’s event from Hampton, arriving nearly two hours before the evangelist began to speak. Henderson is undecided about who he will support for president, but he said whoever he chooses will be a Republican. He wants to hear the candidates’ views on abortion – which he opposes — and illegal immigration.
“I’m ready for some change,” said Henderson, associate pastor at Liberty Hill Baptist Church.
Jerome Gilmore of Snellville said he doesn’t like any of the Republican candidates and is leaning toward Hillary Clinton or Sanders, though he said he would vote for Vice President Joe Biden if he ran.
“Honestly, I wish we had some better candidates,” said Gilmore, a retired Fulton County probation investigator. “I just haven’t heard much from any one of them that would make me endorse one at this point.”
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