With ‘religious liberty’ fight, Georgia Equality becomes an unexpected Capitol player

The climate in the state Capitol is such that you half-expect to turn a corner and find Lord Cornwallis’s fife-and-drum corps belting out “The World Turned Upside Down.”

A Legislature with massive Republican majorities is on the verge of thumbing its nose at anti-tax guru Grover Norquist by raising $1 billion in new spending for transportation.

It has legalized a form of marijuana. And in the midst of unrelenting hostility toward Obamacare, GOP lawmakers have brokered an insurance mandate to provide for children with autism.

But none of this holds a candle to the fact that the General Assembly has thus far resisted Christian conservative demands for “religious liberty” legislation that critics say is intended to prepare for the day that the U.S. Supreme Court bestows constitutional protection on gay marriage.

Late last week, the House Judiciary Committee tabled Senate Bill 129, the religious liberty bill authored by Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, after gutting the measure through the insertion of an anti-discrimination clause.

“I’m surprised, to say the least,” an exhausted Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said immediately afterwards. Pleasantly so, he might have added.

Graham had been a committee witness, telling lawmakers that SB 129 would negate anti-gay discrimination laws and ordinances passed by 59 counties and cities in Georgia.

“Should this bill pass, those protections could be rendered meaningless if the person denying the service, harassing the co-worker, or firing the employee claims they did so out of a religious conviction,” Graham said.

The bill’s sponsor agreed – in his own way.

“You do not want to delegate what religious freedom is going to mean, to depend on what hundreds of local governments have to say on the subject of what they consider to be anti-discrimination language,” McKoon said. It was a turning point in the afternoon.

The fight isn’t over. The House Judiciary Committee will revisit SB 129 on Monday, and the Legislature won’t adjourn until Thursday. But in the aftermath of the one-vote victory before the judiciary committee, Graham sat down and sketched out an LGBT lobbying effort steeped in cash, data, and grassroots networking.

Not unlike the Christian Coalition of old, which 11 years ago pushed a constitutional ban on gay marriage through the Legislature.

Last year’s fight over religious liberty bills was a sudden eruption, killed in large part by the quick, forceful intervention of Georgia’s corporate giants, including Delta, Home Depot and Coke.

The sequel has seen business take a quieter behind-the-scenes role, which has required Georgia Equality to establish itself as a major if unexpected player in Capitol politics.

The effort has required hundreds of thousands of dollars. Georgia Equality retained Mike Bowers, the former attorney general, to argue its case. He doesn’t come cheap. The group’s lobbyist is Cathy Woolard, who has just announced her 2017 candidacy for mayor of Atlanta. A national group pitched in with a communication specialist from the clout-heavy firm of McKenna Long & Aldridge.

Data analysis has allowed Georgia Equality to let state lawmakers know where some 300,000 gays and lesbians are scattered throughout the state.

For instance, as a percentage of population, Fannin and Gilmer counties in north Georgia have the fourth and fifth highest number of gay couples living together– behind only Fulton, DeKalb and Chatham counties.

This is a surprising and important tidbit of information, given that House Speaker David Ralston is from Blue Ridge, located in Fannin County.

Graham said Georgia Equality has 30,000 members and 15,000 on an email alert network – another lobbying trick pioneered by religious conservatives.

On Thursday, SB 129 was gutted at the initiative of state Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Brookhaven, who said his office had been flooded with calls from people inside and outside his district. But calls from within District 80 were decidedly against the measure, Jacobs said.

Yet Georgia Equality had another way to reach out to Jacobs, who is Jewish. Several rabbis, including one of the most conservative in metro Atlanta, had come out against the legislation. Georgia Equality assembled a list of 200 more clergy who felt likewise.

“That’s one of the big areas that’s different from last year – understanding the importance of faith communities,” Graham said. The executive director said the shift was the result of a poll of gays and lesbians across the state.

“We found out that just under half the folks in the LGBT community say that faith and religion are very important to them. I think for far too long, there has been a public narrative that has pitted faith communities against the LGBT community.”

Georgia Equality challenged that assumption in press conference after press conference. “It’s critical that we do this. Not only are we people of faith, but our families are,” he said.

Graham acknowledged tension between his group and the business community, but said he also recognized that Georgia corporations – such as Delta Air Lines – have paid a heavy price for siding with Georgia Equality. The airline may lose a 10-year-old, $23 million-a-year sales tax break on aviation fuel.

“Last year, it really was the business community stepping up. I think in many ways, the silence of the business community this year has made us work harder,” Graham said.

Once created, new political operations seldom melt away. As a result of its increased clout in the Capitol, Georgia Equality is likely to be a stronger player in the 2017 race for mayor of Atlanta.

Graham was disinclined to speak of that.

But the head of Georgia Equality said his group intended to widen its targeting at the Capitol to include legislation that would bar discrimination by sexual orientation in state government.

“We’re eventually going to have to pass some civil rights law here in Georgia,” Graham said. “My community depends upon that legislation.”

In law-making, as in war, defense requires less blood and fewer tears than offense. Stopping legislation is easier than pushing an initiative through to passage.

But it has been a year of remarkable change in the Capitol. Who’s to say the world can’t be turned upside down again?