The Path of Reconciliation

Social change inevitably comes with growing pains. The recent debate in Georgia over religious liberty and LGBT civil rights is no exception. Indeed, the discourse under the Gold Dome exposes our state’s deep and troubling divide.

In the last few months, the rift between various communities has revealed a stunning lack of understanding and a lack of trust between fellow Georgians.  The volleying ad hominem attacks, snide characterizations, patronizing comments, subtle jeers, and self-serving agitations that have accompanied the debate over the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act has done nothing for the people of Georgia. The degree of social strife taking root in our state is simply unsustainable.

If this deep-seated animosity continues to spread, the consequences will be damning. What businesses will relocate to Georgia if they fear penalization for speaking out on civil rights? Why would our best and brightest want to stay in a place where year-after-year we reopen old scars and fight the same tired battles? Why would others want to move to Georgia when we have demonstrated hostility to the basic principles of equality and tolerance?

The friction will not go away if we pretend it does not exist. It will not go away if Senate Bill 129– passes. It will not go away if SB 129 languishes in the House until Sine Die. Sitting idly by while the fabric of our society tears will wreak havoc with Georgia’s national reputation. No one will escape the devastating economic, social, and political consequences of our failure to act. It is time to push the pause button and commit to a better path forward.

Georgians need a vehicle for reconciliation.

We need a venue that promotes de-escalation and thoughtful dialogue. Civil rights history provides a model. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, states struggling with contentious civil rights environments formed commissions to serve as a sounding board for the concerns of racial minorities. Then as now, the opportunity to be heard by a body of legislative leaders and community stakeholders can help diffuse tension by bringing people together to seek common ground.

A commission looking at the status of civil rights in Georgia holds great promise and for more than just the LGBT community. A special civil rights commission could look at the impact of discrimination on the basis of race, sex, national origin, religion, veteran status, familial status, disability, or criminal history in Georgians’ lives and explore potential remedies. A healthier debate on SB129 belongs in this broader inquiry.

Georgia’s civil rights laws are shamefully nonexistent. There are no broad employment or public accommodation protections under state law. Georgia joins only Alabama and Mississippi in having no statewide employment nondiscrimination law, leaving even victims of race, sex, or religious discrimination without any legal recourse. In 2015, that is a disgrace. It is time to honor Georgia’s place as the cradle of civil rights and do what should have been done 50 years ago.

What might a study group ultimately achieve for LGBT rights? For that, we should turn to Utah. This month, Utah enacted housing and employment protections banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Protections for religious objectors were also included. Legislators and community leaders crafted legislation through deliberation and compromise that was supported by the Mormon Church, the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, and LGBT organizations, among others. If Deep Red Utah can make good on guaranteeing basic LGBT nondiscrimination safeguards alongside religious liberty protections, so can Georgia.

Georgia has a ripe opportunity to be a shining example for the rest of the country. Here is a reasonable path to move forward. We need only muster the courage to make it a reality.