- Associated Press - Monday, February 8, 2016

ATLANTA (AP) - A Georgia House panel on Monday approved a bill preventing businesses from discriminating based on race, country of origin or religion, a federal standard first set in the mid-1960s, after Republican members rejected an effort to add protection for gay, lesbian and transgender people to the measure.

Wary about other proposed bills that would give legal exemptions to same-sex marriage opponents, gay-rights advocates want sexual orientation and gender identity added. An amendment from Rep. Taylor Bennett, D-Brookhaven, adding that protection to the bill, along with coverage based on sex, age, disability and military service, failed during Monday’s meeting of the House Judiciary subcommittee.

Smyrna Republican Rep. Rick Golick said the bill he’s proposing is modeled on the federal Civil Rights Act and “fills a gap” in state law. It also gives people who feel they have been discriminated against a state-level solution rather than a federal review by the Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights, which can take more time, he said.

Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta, said lawmakers shouldn’t just copy federal language developed in the 1960s.

“I don’t think we ought to wait another 60 years to fix the issues we’re dealing with today,” Bruce said.

Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold, questioned the need to go beyond federal protection.

“The whole bill seems like we’re trying to make sure somebody doesn’t get bullied by someone else,” Weldon said. “Those who overcome bullies usually do pretty well down the road.”

The full House Judiciary Committee is set to consider the bill Tuesday afternoon. Its chairman, Republican Rep. Wendell Willard of Sandy Springs, is a co-sponsor of the proposal.

Georgia is one of five states without a so-called “public accommodation” law. Cities and counties, including Atlanta, have passed laws within their borders. The other states without a law are Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas.

Some states offer protection beyond federal law: Eighteen include marital status, 22 include sexual orientation, and 18 include gender identity as of March, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The bill specifically lists hotels, restaurants, gas stations, movie theaters and other entertainment venues as businesses prohibited from discriminating against customers. Private establishments would be exempt.

People who feel they have been discriminated against could file a complaint within a year to the state Commission on Equal Opportunity. The commission, created by a 1978 state law, already handles complaints related to discrimination in public employment and federal and state fair housing laws.

The commission would have 90 days to review the complaint, with the power to subpoena evidence and issue fines against people who give false statements, refuse to testify or won’t provide evidence.

If commission staffers find a violation occurred, a three-member panel including an attorney will hold a hearing and can issue fines ranging from $10,000 to $50,000, based on the accused’s prior violations. Those decisions can be appealed to local courts.

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This story has been corrected to cite the National Conference of State Legislatures. A previous version incorrectly gave the organization’s name as the National Council of State Legislatures.

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