ATLANTA — The two runoff elections in Georgia on Tuesday will not only determine control of the Senate, but will also have far-reaching implications for the future of federal nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans.
Because of LGBTQ policy differences between the parties (the Republican platform, for example, still calls for marriage to exclusively be between a man and a woman), as well as the track record and rhetoric on LGBTQ issues of the four Senate candidates in Georgia, the runoff stakes are particularly high for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Americans.
NBC News reached out to the candidates to ask about their stances on LGBTQ issues. The two Republican incumbents, Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, did not respond to multiple requests for comment, including follow-ups asking for responses to their rivals' comments.
The two Democrats, Jon Ossoff (challenging Perdue) and Raphael Warnock (taking on Loeffler), did respond.
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Perdue is seeking a second term, while Loeffler was appointed to the seat last year. In November, Perdue fell just short of the required 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff against Ossoff, while Loeffler got 26 percent of the vote to Warnock's 33 percent in the 21-candidate field. The winner of the Loeffler-Warnock race holds the seat until 2022.
Republicans currently have a 50-48 majority in the new Senate, which convened on Jan. 3. If Republicans win one or both Georgia Senate seats on Jan. 5, they will increase their majority. Democrats need to win both elections to wrest control, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as the tiebreaking vote.
Ossoff and Warnock both committed to supporting the Equality Act if elected. The federal bill would update civil rights legislation to add protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations, jury service, education, federal programs and credit.
"Reverend Warnock believes we need to pass the Equality Act and prevent legalized loopholes for insurance companies to discriminate against any member of the LGBTQ+ community,” Malik Brown, special adviser on LGBTQ engagement to the Warnock campaign, told NBC News. “He understands that all of us deserve the right to lead lives of equal dignity and access to health care for ourselves and our families without fear of harassment and discrimination.”
Ossoff also pledged his support for the Equality Act in his platform, and his campaign pointed to an interview he gave to the LGBTQ outlet Project Q Atlanta, in which he said that his support for the queer community is "unwavering" and that he would bring a "strong vote" for the Equality Act in the Senate.
Neither Loeffler nor Perdue has specifically addressed the Equality Act. Loeffler, however, has supported “religious liberty” legislation that would allow private organizations the right to deny services to people whose beliefs, behavior or sexual orientation run counter to "sincerely held religious beliefs." Such legislation would undermine the foundation of the Equality Act and could lead to situations in which businesses, charities and other organizations could turn away LGBTQ customers.
In the absence of a national law, at least 20 states — Georgia not among them — have enacted LGBTQ discrimination protections. Residents of those states enjoy many of the Equality Act's protections, but they stop at state borders. An LGBTQ person moving from Virginia to Georgia, for example, would find that their right to rent a home with their same-sex partner or use a public restroom that matches their gender identity could be in jeopardy.
In 2019, the House passed the Equality Act in a 236-173 vote, largely along party lines, with eight Republicans voting in favor. However, the legislation was never given a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate. President-elect Joe Biden has said it is his goal to pass the Equality Act within his first 100 days in office.
"These are all issues that Congress has had before them for several years, but there has not been the support in the Senate to have some hearings," Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said. "So it is incredibly important to make sure that whoever ends up being the next senators from Georgia will be people that will look at these LGBT issues and begin to debate them and act on them."
‘A strong and outspoken ally’
The Equality Act is not the only policy position where Democratic candidates’ have pledged support for LGBTQ rights.
Brown, who was recently appointed Atlanta's first director of LGBTQ affairs, said Warnock’s advocacy for the queer community goes beyond being an ally and making his support for the community heard from the pulpit of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. was a pastor and Warnock is now the senior pastor.
"The future of LGBTQ rights in Georgia and across the country are front and center in this election," Brown said. "Warnock would also fight to ensure that there is fairness and equity in health care, working to expand access to HIV preventative measures like PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and other life-saving care for all communities.”
In his platform, Ossoff has called for strengthening anti-bullying programs for LGBTQ youth and protecting the rights and safety of transgender Americans, amid one of the most violent years on record against the transgender communities.
“The LGBTQ community will be able to count on me to stand with them as a strong and outspoken ally,” Ossoff’s platform reads.
‘They have not put in much effort’
While Perdue has largely stayed away from discussing LGBTQ issues in the Senate and on the campaign trail, Loeffler has introduced anti-LGBTQ legislation in the Senate and has donated part of her Senate salary to at least one organization that explicitly discriminates against LGBTQ people.
Both Republican candidates have been endorsed by the Family Policy Alliance of Georgia, whose national organization lobbies against legislation to expand LGBTQ rights.
"The records of Sen. Perdue and Sen. Loeffler indicate that they not only do not understand the unique needs of LGBTQ people, but also that they have not put in much effort at all into beginning to understand," said Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, an LGBTQ rights advocacy group.
Loeffler, who is reported to be the wealthiest member of the Senate, has pledged to donate her $174,000 salary as a senator to different Georgia-based charities each quarter. Among those charities she has donated to is Covenant Care, a Christian adoption and counseling agency that considers only heterosexual Christian couples for its adoption programs. To be considered, couples must also sign a statement of faith that labels homosexuality and bisexuality “a form of sexual immorality” and states that “rejection of one’s biological sex is a rejection of the image of God within that person.”
In September, Loeffler introduced the "Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act," which aimed to strip Title IX funding to schools that allowed transgender female athletes to compete in events that matched their gender identities. The bill mirrors efforts that have largely failed in U.S. statehouses, but it was passed into law in Idaho last year (a state judge granted a preliminary injunction in August stopping the law from going into effect while it is challenged in court).
Loeffler owns the WNBA's Atlanta Dream, and her outspokenness against this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests led to the team's players demanding new ownership and even openly supporting Warnock before games.
Brown said Loeffler's record of charitable donations and her introduction of anti-transgender legislation shows she "traffics in division" when it comes to LGBTQ rights, and activists have warned what a divided House and Senate could mean for future legislation.
“The Senate runoff election is very important for LGBTQ Southerners and for the country overall,” Beach-Ferrara said. “If Sen. Loeffler or Sen. Perdue win their races, the U.S. Senate will be held by a Republican majority, and we’ve seen repeated threats from the party to obstruct federal action on a wide range of issues, from Covid-19 relief to Cabinet appointments to judicial appointments.”
Early voting was held in Georgia from Dec. 14 through Dec. 30. It will resume again on Tuesday. If either Democrat wins, it will be the first time Georgia has elected a Democrat to the Senate in 20 years.