The #MarchMadness of state #RFRA, and how Columbus is fighting it

Here in Columbus, where the sponsor and author of SB 129 (State Sen. Josh McKoon) hails from, local activism and media outreach against the bill has gained increasing momentum. I have also participated in much of this activism, and got a lot of nice photos and video of these events.

3/17/2015 Rally in Atlanta

After the passage of the patently-lopsided bill in both the State Senate (overwhelmingly and with unethical tactics in committee), Georgia Unites Against Discrimination (GUAD, a collaboration between HRC-Atlanta and Georgia Equality) called for a rally on March 17 against the bill in front of the State Capitol building in Atlanta. Patricia Lassiter, Tom McDaniel and other local activists organized a bus trip to Atlanta to represent LGBT and Allied Columbus residents in opposition to RFRA. We heard preachers of multiple religions speak against the bill, including the catchy statement by Rabbi Joshua Heller of Atlanta’s Congregation B’Nai Torah: “Not in My Name, Not in Our Name, Not in God’s Name!”

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3/24/2015: The Crisis Deepens

The House Judicial (Civil) Special Subcommittee passed the bill on March 24, the bill was slated to pass the House Judicial Committee as early as March 26.

3/26/2015: Columbus Phone Bank

The day of the hearing for the bill, a phone bank in Columbus was organized by Lassiter hours before in order to move Georgia residents against the bill. However, shortly after yours truly arrived to participate, word was received online that the bill had been stalled in the committee by an amendment submitted by Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Brookhaven). Yet we persevered and made calls from 6 to 8 pm.

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Phone Bank participants (including the unseen photographer) at the University Avenue Burger King, furiously dialing Georgia residents to galvanize opposition against RFRA for GeorgiaUnites.org.

3/29/2015 Prayer Vigil

Hastily called hours before by Charryse Wheeler and Angel Bigger, with attendance by Rabbi Beth Schwartz of Temple Israel Columbus and Rev. Grace Burton-Edwards of St. Thomas Episcopal, the rally had an estimated attendance of 20-25 people (not including two cameras of the press in attendance) at the Government Center downtown. Participants spoke with sincerity about the role of discrimination in their lives and the public roles of religion in their own relationship with their home city and with each other. Bigger’s story, in particular, was tearful and impactful.

However, minutes before the event was to start, McKoon’s wishes for a rescheduled House Judiciary Committee meeting and vote on the unamended bill was shot down when the meeting was cancelled and postponed for an as-yet-unannounced date.

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3/31/2015 Rally

At a final rally organized by Lassiter and Hobbs (this time two days before), about 25-30 people returned to the government center to hear Lassiter, Hobbs, Dan Hutto and yours truly speak against the bill.

Lassiter, an energetic activist in local progressive politics and volunteer on the 2014 campaigns for both Mayor Tomlinson and the Democratic Party’s Coordinated Campaign, was fulsome with criticism of McKoon’s conduct as District 129’s senator, and vowed to fight to take him down. Hobbs, the CEO of the Chattahoochee Valley Better Way Foundation (an HIV-positive support network) and a 2010 voter for McKoon’s ethics-centered 1st-term platform, told of his sense of betrayal by McKoon’s turn toward the religious right’s prejudices.

Hobbs, Lassiter and myself spoke to the Ledger-Enquirer after the rally.

After both rallies held at the Government Center, Hobbs hawked posters to attendees for his “We Serve All” business sticker campaign and the upcoming 2nd annual Colgay Pride event on Broadway downtown June 6th.

Heading into April and its Showers

So as of this writing, the clock is running out on SB 129 for this session, with the bill still not scheduled for a House Judiciary Committee meeting to decide its fate. Even the Committee vote on the amended bill was not recorded, which was telling about the treatment of the bill by other House Republicans.

The clock runs out on Thursday, April 2. After that, the General Assembly retires for a spell into the next session in January 2016, when McKoon may likely bring the same RFRA bill back again.

But local Columbus-area advocates rallied to the opposition, and did not take it lying down. The work of Lassiter, Hobbs, McDaniel, Wheeler, Bigger, and many others awakened more of the area to the discrimination in their midst, much of which would be given a free pass through a RFRA in force in Georgia.

I’ve also changed a bit in my feelings about the GOP majority in the General Assembly. As demonstrated by Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-80, Brookhaven), a Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, some folks in the GOP majority may be aware of the need for protecting civil rights. Yes, I’ve written my thanks to him for his amendment of the bill. That was a teaching moment for everyone BUT Josh McKoon, who felt that his bill was somehow “gutted” by this addition of civil rights preservation.

Seriously?

Maybe in the future, the writer hopes, Columbus will be more aware of the need for an inclusive non-discrimination ordinance which protects sexual orientation and gender identity classes? Maybe Georgia will become more aware of the need for Rep. Karla Drenner’s Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA)?

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