Georgia Democrat Taylor Bennett pulled off a surprise victory on Tuesday in a runoff election for the state’s house of representatives, handily beating his Republican opponent by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin. The win by a liberal political newcomer (and former Georgia Tech quarterback) is mainly notable because it destroys the Republican supermajority in the state house, blocking the party’s ability to pass a constitutional amendment without Democratic support. But Bennett’s triumph is especially exciting for Georgia’s gay community, because the candidate had made opposition to the state’s anti-gay “religious liberty” bill the centerpiece of his campaign.
Georgia’s cruelly anti-gay measure was nearly hustled through the state legislature in March, at the same time that backlash against Indiana’s similar law reached a fever pitch. Before the bill reached the floor, however, a moderate Republican proposed a simple amendment stating that the measure must not be interpreted to legalize discrimination. When the amendment narrowly passed, conservative Republicans tabled the bill indefinitely—essentially admitting that, yes, “religious freedom” laws are designed to permit anti-gay discrimination.
Bennett anchored his election campaign around his passionate opposition to this bill and others like it. A labor and employment attorney, Bennett fully grasped the mechanisms embedded in the measure designed to let businesses turn away gay people. Moreover, Bennett’s mother and sister are gay, making the issue quite personal for him. (He also supports laws that prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations.) As he told the Georgia Voice:
[W]atching the Georgia legislature figuratively try to figure out ways to discriminate, especially to the LGBT community, I didn’t want to sit by and just watch this unfold in front of me. I’m thinking, is my mom going to be able to come to Georgia and have lunch with her son and have to face discrimination to come see me? That was something that got at me pretty deep.
Obviously, one election in one district in one Southern state doesn’t prove that “religious freedom” bills are a losing cause for conservatives. Still, it’s heartening to see a candidate in a Republican-leaning county in a dark red state vociferously support gay equality—and trounce his opponent. Faux-religious liberty laws were supposed to be the big winning issue for anti-gay Republicans after marriage equality. Bennett’s victory hints that homophobia isn’t any more palatable for most voters when it’s thinly veiled in the guise of principled piety.