Friday, March 20, 2015

Will Georgia Turn It's Back on Tolerance?

On its surface, Senate Bill 129 — a bill under consideration in the Georgia Legislature known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act— claims to protect religious freedom and encourage tolerance. In reality, it encourages the same discrimination that’s haunted the South for too long.

When I moved to Atlanta in 1990, the nation was in the midst an HIV/AIDS crisis fueled by stigma and discrimination. I founded the Elton John AIDS Foundation here in Atlanta to fight the misunderstanding and prejudice at the heart of the epidemic, and to provide support and dignity to those battling the disease.

In 1992, one of my dear friends and a founding board member of EJAF, Eli Saleeby, rushed a friend of his to Grady Memorial Hospital. His friend was suffering from full-blown AIDS. When they arrived at Grady, Eli’s friend was in excruciating pain and needed medical assistance right away. But the hospital staff was so fearful of HIV/AIDS, and the stigma surrounding the disease was so intense, that he was left alone, suffering, on a gurney in the hallway. No one would help him.

Eighteen years later, in 2010, Eli was suffering from HIV/AIDS complications himself. He’d fallen down in a parking lot and was rushed to Grady by ambulance. This time, things were different. He had a six-person medical team that treated him with dignity and compassion. Eli ultimately lost his battle with HIV/AIDS, but he fought bravely, and he was supported every step of the way by caring physicians.

I’m proud of the progress we have made, particularly in the South, in treating people living with HIV equally and compassionately. But we still have a long way to go. People living with HIV are still discriminated against in Georgia, and indeed, all across the United States. The rates of HIV/AIDS among LGBT people of color and low-income people remain disproportionately high, especially in the South.

That’s why I’m so opposed to SB 129.

Simply put, this bill is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It promises religious freedom, but let’s be clear: No one’s religious freedom is at risk! Both the Georgia Constitution and U.S. Constitution very explicitly protect this right.

What SB 129 will really do is institutionalize the hate some people hold in their hearts against other people. It will turn back the clock on the progress we have made — not only in the fight against HIV, but also in the struggle for a more equal and just society.

To be clear, I firmly believe in freedom of religion. Everyone has the right to worship as they choose. But I also believe in justice, equality and the rule of law. We can’t just let people refuse to follow a law because they don’t like it. And we can’t just grant special exemptions that allow people to discriminate at will.

In this country, if you don’t like a law, you can work to change it. And if enough people agree with your point of view, you’ll succeed. That’s the beauty of democracy in America. And that’s why I’m writing this essay. I hope enough people, once they realize the harmful intent behind SB 129, will join me in fighting it.

No one should be discriminated against because of who he is, or what he looks like, or because of a disease he happens to have. My dear friend Eli fought and lived through a time of progress, and so should we. We cannot afford to turn back the clock as we fight for an AIDS-free future in Georgia, across the country and around the world.

-Sir Elton john for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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