A protestor holds a rainbow-colored flag during a rally in front of the Capitol building in Atlanta, Georgia, March 17, 2015.

© 2015 AP Photo/David Goldman, File

A gay person in the US state of Georgia can be refused a meal at a restaurant because there is no state law prohibiting that kind of discrimination. State lawmakers now have an opportunity to protect vulnerable groups, but may once again prioritize laws that could allow people to discriminate.

A civil rights bill pending before the legislature would prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas are the only US states that do not have laws prohibiting any form of discrimination in places like restaurants, stores, and hotels. All other states prohibit discrimination of this kind on the basis of race, gender, religion, and ancestry, with twenty of those states prohibiting discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender identity.

Lawmakers are also considering religious exemption legislation, similar to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that makes it more difficult for the government to enforce policies that affect the exercise of religion. On the campaign trail, Governor Brian Kemp signaled he may sign such a measure.

For the past six years, Georgia lawmakers debated religious exemptions that would provide businesses, child welfare agencies, and others with a license to discriminate. Thankfully, Georgia has so far not passed any such law. Such an approach enacts the exception in the absence of the rule, issuing a sweeping exemption from nondiscrimination protections that do not even exist. Human Rights Watch has documented the harmfulness of such an approach, which deprives people of services while sending a signal their identity makes them unwelcome in their state.

Instead of pressing ahead with exemptions, lawmakers in Georgia should take a different approach and enact comprehensive nondiscrimination legislation in employment, housing, and public accommodations. These long-overdue protections would benefit everyone in the state, protecting them from unfair treatment based on race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, familial status, or national origin. At a minimum, lawmakers considering religious exemptions should ensure that these protections are actually in place before debating any limits on their reach – and that any exemptions they grant cannot be used to deny people goods and services because of who they are.