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By Aaron Gould Sheinin and Bill Rankin
Georgia is one of only five states without a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination in public accommodations.
But legislation introduced Tuesday by the chairman of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee would end that distinction. It would ban businesses from turning away customers based on their race, color, religion or national origin and apply to hotels, restaurants, gas stations, entertainment venues and other service industries.
The bill is modeled after federal civil rights law passed in 1964, the chief sponsor, Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, said.
“I believe that 99-something percent of Georgia businesses who would potentially be affected by this bill are run by good people who would never discriminate against anyone — and therefore have nothing to worry about,” Golick said. “But the possibility does exist and we have nothing in our state law to address it.”
Like federal accommodations law, House Bill 849 would not ban discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation.
Golick called his proposal a proper starting point. “My hope is that the General Assembly in collaboration with the governor will expand that list and be as inclusive as possible when it comes to the issue of anti-discrimination,” he said.
The bill has powerful bipartisan support. Co-sponsors are Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, Judiciary Committee Chairman Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, and Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates. Smyre is the longest-serving member of the Legislature and is a key bridge between the two parties. Drenner, who is gay, often sponsors legislation to expand protections for gays and lesbians.
HB 849 would allow people who believe they are victims of discrimination to file a complaint before the state Commission on Equal Opportunity. The commission would then launch an investigation and, upon a finding that discrimination likely occurred, it would file a formal charge against the business. A hearing would then be held before a board that could award compensatory damages to the aggrieved person and impose a fine against the business.
“The introduction of any serious piece of civil rights legislation in this state is laudable,” said Anthony Kreis, a constitutional scholar at the University of Georgia. The fact Georgia is one of only five states without a public accommodations law “is a distinction which we should be glad to rid ourselves of in 2016.”
Lawmakers should extend the ban, Kreis added. “There is no good reason to not include LGBT persons expressly in the bill given the intense debate that we’re having on exemptions elsewhere in the General Assembly.”
Golick said his bill was not introduced to counter the ongoing debate over religious liberty legislation. Several bills are pending before the House and Senate that seek to protect religious freedoms from government intrusion. Some critics of those bills say without anti-discrimination language or separate civil rights legislation, the religious freedom bills could be used as a license to discriminate.SHARE THIS STORY