The city of Doraville recently approved an ordinance that prohibits local businesses from discriminating against various minority groups, such as African Americans and people with disabilities. But the new law also bans discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity in a move that bucks “religious freedom” bills that have been debated at the General Assembly for the past several years.

In November, Doraville became only the second city in Georgia to put such a law on its books to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. The city of Atlanta passed the first such ordinance in 2001.

Doraville City Councilmember Stephe Koontz.

Doraville City Councilmember Stephe Koontz, believed to be the first openly transgender person elected to office in the state, spearheaded passage of the ordinance, which was approved in a 5-1 vote in November. She said she’s worked with the city of Clarkston and Chamblee on their own nondiscrimination ordinances and she hopes other metro Atlanta cities follow Doraville’s lead.

“The whole idea is to inspire other cities to join in the fight against discrimination, which they should want to do,” she said.

The cities of Brookhaven and Dunwoody have no current plans to take on such an ordinance. In Sandy Springs, a spokesperson said the city has no authority to regulate private businesses.

“Our policy is, and always has been, that we do not discriminate against anyone for any reason,” Sharon Kraun said in a written statement.

“Local government policies against discrimination apply to the local government not discriminating against persons similarly situated, on any basis,” she said. “That is the city’s policy. The city has no authority to police complaints by private citizens discriminating against private citizens.”

Koontz, who is from Sandy Springs, disagreed with her hometown’s decision. The Doraville ordinance is legal because it is tied to the occupational tax permit businesses must apply for to operate in the city, she said. The city’s nondiscrimination ordinance also prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, color, sex, disability, national origin, ancestry or military status.

“By applying for the permit, they are agreeing to abide by our ordinances,” Koontz said.

Chamblee City Councilmember Brian Mock.

The city of Chamblee was expected to approve its own comprehensive nondiscrimination ordinance this month, according to City Councilmember Brian Mock.

Mock, who is gay, said the city’s gay and lesbian population has “exploded” in recent years and the nondiscrimination ordinance would ensure their rights are protected. The local ordinances are representative of a shift in Georgia’s politics, he said.

“We’ve changed a lot as a state and are not nearly as red as we used to be,” he said. “This is one city, one step at a time.”

More than 60 cities in Georgia have their own nondiscrimination ordinances that prohibit discrimination against city employees based on sexual orientation; approximately 20 cities also ban discrimination based on gender identity.

By approving the nondiscrimination ordinance that applies to privately-owned businesses, Doraville is taking a bold step, said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, the state’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization.

“This really should not be controversial in 2019,” Graham said.

But cities other than Atlanta have been hesitant to regulate any kind of law based on sexual orientation and gender identity based on a 1995 state Supreme Court ruling, Graham said. In that ruling, the High Court ruled partly in favor of Bill McKinney, a Democratic state lawmaker who sued the city of Atlanta saying it overstepped its authority after it implemented a domestic partner registry and offered some protections to same-sex couples.

Graham said he has heard from many cities citing this 1995 ruling for not approving a local ordinance such as the one Doraville approved. But others interpret the ruling to only deal with domestic partners and nothing else, Graham said. “There is really nothing that prohibits this,” he said.

Mock said Chamblee’s attorney said the 1995 ruling is relevant only in that it concerns issues of discrimination but does not apply to the city’s proposed nondiscrimination ordinance.

The Georgia legislature, however, does not shy away from anti-LGBTQ legislation. The General Assembly last year approved an overhaul of its adoption code for the first time in 30 years. But the law only passed after a year-long fight with Republican senators who wanted to amend the bill to allow adoption agencies deny children to LGBTQ couples based on their religious belief.

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality.

Republicans over the past several years have also tried to push through a “religious freedom” bill to essentially prohibit governments from restricting a person’s exercise of their religion. Opponents of the bill say the bill would lead to businesses discriminating against LGBTQ people.

Graham said anytime there is a step forward such as the Doraville nondiscrimination ordinance, there is the risk of backlash at the State Capitol.
For the past several years, Democrats at the legislature have introduced a state civil rights bill backed by Georgia Equality that would mirror federal law to protect Georgians against discrimination in hotels, restaurants, theaters and other public accommodations based on race, color, religion, natural origin or sex and including sexual orientation and gender identity, Graham said.

“One of the reasons why we are so concerned about the passage of any form or ‘religious freedom’ law in Georgia is that without the state having a civil rights law to balance it, a RFRA bill is an automatic open door to discrimination of groups of people, particularly LGBT people,” he said.

Georgia is one of three states without such a civil rights bill, Graham added. Alabama and Mississippi are the other two states.

Koontz said Doraville’s ordinance protects LGBTQ people, but it also protects a Muslim woman wearing a burqa from being refused service at a restaurant, for example.

“This isn’t just an LGBTQ bill, this is a bill protecting everyone,” she said.

–Evelyn Andrews contributed

Dyana Bagby

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.