Georgia GOP leaders prepare to open front in bathroom war

Staff writer Kristina Torres contributed to this article.

State lawmakers are ready to declare Georgia’s entry into the politically charged bathroom wars roiling North Carolina.

Critics are just as quickly dubbing it a made-up crisis created by social conservatives for political gain.

Key Georgia Republicans have vowed to fight the Obama administration’s directive to public schools over transgender bathroom rules. One Senate leader is already planning a potential legislative response. And the state’s top politicians are under mounting pressure to attack the directive in court.

Each is a signal that the Obama administration’s guidance last week that directed public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity has only intensified the debate in Georgia, with many lawmakers itching to take on both the administration and gay rights advocates.

The timing seems opportune. Religious conservatives are still smarting over Gov. Nathan Deal's veto of House Bill 757, "religious liberty" legislation that would have expanded legal protections for same-sex marriage opponents. Combine that with election-year politics — dozens of GOP incumbents face primary challenges next week — and it all but guarantees a polarizing push back.

Already, conservatives are tripping over each other to condemn the president. Senate Republicans said the directive sets up girls to be "victimized" in schools. House Speaker David Ralston urged Congress to block the federal government from "dictating" to locally elected school boards. And just about every critic accused Obama of overreach.

"We have enough problems educating our children without introducing this problem," said state Senate Judiciary Chairman Josh McKoon, R-Columbus.

Deal, tight-lipped on the directive until Tuesday, said in a statement that he will work with other state officials “to protect the interests of Georgia’s children from this abuse of federal executive authority.” But he said it was up to Georgia’s 181 school districts, and not the state, to determine an appropriate response.

Gay rights groups and other advocates that applauded Obama’s directive harbor a deeper worry that it could provoke a new race in Georgia for lawmakers to outdo their Southern colleagues next year during the 2017 session.

“It is actually a fight we had anticipated was coming our way,” said Jeff Graham of Georgia Equality, which advocates for the LGBT community. He said conservatives hobbled by recent court and legislative defeats are now zeroing in on transgender people, in part because they see them as an easier target.

“I think they prey off a lot of fear and misinformation by mischaracterizing nondiscrimination legislation,” he said, making it an argument about who uses what bathrooms and whether men will be allowed to use women’s bathrooms in particular. “That’s simply not the case.”

Funding at stake

Obama’s guidance was released days after the U.S. Department of Justice and North Carolina filed near-simultaneous lawsuits over the state law that requires transgender people to use the public restroom at schools and other public places that matches the sex on their birth certificates.

"I think that it is part of our obligation as a society to make sure that everybody is treated fairly, and our kids are all loved, and that they're protected and that their dignity is affirmed," Obama said in an interview with BuzzFeed News.

The directive is not a mandate and does not carry the force of law, but schools that ignore it could potentially lose federal funding. The federal government provides about $2 billion a year to Georgia in k-12 education funding each year.

Most Georgia districts are likely to comply. Gwinnett County's system, the state's largest, assailed the new policy over the weekend but said it would follow the guidelines.

Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens criticized the Obama administration but stopped short of any explicit action to block it, though the governor asked Superintendent Richard Woods to provide guidance to schools struggling with the directive to “ensure that there will be as much uniformity across our state as possible.”

Several other Republican governors have vowed to defy Obama's directive, and attorney generals in at least eight other conservative states are asking a federal appeals court to reopen a case involving a Virginia transgender student who successfully sued to use the boys' school restroom.

Already, about two dozen Georgia Senate Republicans called on both to challenge Obama’s directive in federal court and send a letter to every school district assuring local officials that the state would defend them if they flouted the order.

“The federal Executive Branch has now assumed the role of the abuser by threatening the safety and welfare of the children of the State of Georgia,” they wrote in the letter to Deal and Olens. “We cannot be complicit in this abuse by being complacent. We must be proactive to come to the defense of our children.”

Other lawmakers have urged caution.

"Schools should be safe and inclusive centers of learning, and I'm confident we can achieve that goal for all students if we let the facts and not fear guide our decision making," said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta.

‘Victimized’ students

The most concrete plan to emerge in Georgia is from McKoon, one of the more outspoken proponents of “religious liberty” legislation.

He said he plans to file legislation allowing parents to sue the state and school district if their child is “victimized” in a bathroom because of the directive. He echoed other conservatives in voicing concerns that young children could be targeted by predators masquerading as transgender.

“We’ve got to make it clear if these policies are put in place, these children are put at risk,” he said. “I want to make sure if and when there are children who are victimized, their parents are going to be able to get legal relief.”

Other plans are being floated as well. Some lawmakers are considering borrowing from another provision in North Carolina’s law that would ban cities such as Atlanta from enforcing their own anti-discrimination policies.

And there could be a revival of a short-lived proposal that would have made it easier to launch expensive class-action lawsuits against companies violating their own LGBT rules.

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, who voted against HB 757 at the request of his gay brother, said he would not be surprised to see some sort of rebuke to the federal government emerge next year.

“It is frustrating that the federal government keeps reaching its intrusive arms into situations and scenarios that would be best handled by local school boards, who are much more familiar with the individuals involved and the particulars of how to handle a situation like this,” he said.

“These decisions should be handled at the local level, especially when it involves children that are struggling to find their way in this life,” he added. “A one-size-fits-all solution from the federal government is not the answer.”

Nothing is ‘off the table’

Whether state leaders have an appetite for this type of legislation is another story. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who as head of the state Senate has forcefully embraced social conservative issues ahead of a likely run for governor, said he wouldn’t rule out anything.

“You can’t take anything off the table. Right now this is a new ruling and we’re taking everything under consideration and analyzing what the impact might look like. And we’re doing it in a very deliberate way,” Cagle said. “It’s not time to overreact, but certainly this will continue to be a topic.”

If they do, some LGBT activists warn Georgia could face more severe blowback than the state suffered amid the “religious liberty” debate, when a string of powerful companies threatened to pull out of Georgia.

Robbie Medwed of the Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity, one of Georgia’s leading gay rights groups, said it would amount to an “anti-trans witch hunt to demean and humiliate this already vulnerable population.”

“They are going to drive Georgia’s reputation into the ground because they don’t understand that trans people are just trying to live their lives in peace,” he said.