A hate crimes bill backed by a bipartisan group of Georgia politicians and the business and religious community emerged from a Senate committee that held it for more than a year, but not before it was burdened with provisions that could doom its chances for 2020.
The Senate Judiciary Committee Friday added police officers as a protected class in a hate crimes bill intended by House members to add penalties for criminals motivated by a bias against a person’s race, religion, gender or other types of identity characteristics.
Backlash was swift from civil rights leaders and elected officials, who argue the maneuver could squash the chances of getting any hate crimes legislation passed this year.
After the five Republicans on the committee succeeded in adding first responders as a protected class to House Bill 426, the panel voted 5-3 to send it to the full Senate for consideration in the waning days of the 2020 legislative session.
The original bill enjoyed bipartisan support, including from sponsors Democrat Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus and Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Republican from Dacula. They say the Senate committee’s maneuver could effectively kill hate crimes legislation this year.
More than a few lawmakers say the need to pass hate crimes legislation took on a new urgency after recent courtroom testimony that one of Ahmaud Arbery’s accused killers muttered a racial slur after shooting him in February.
Last year, Efstration’s hate crimes legislation narrowly cleared his chamber. But it’s winning over more Republican support as national outrage intensifies over social injustice, Efstration said. He suggested the senators added the amendments Friday to trip up his legislation, which will need to restart from scratch if it doesn’t reach the governor’s desk this month.
“It’s incredibly important that this legislation be passed this year, and poison pill amendments which are brought only for the purpose of causing division, causing Democrat opposition in order to ensure failure of the legislation is unacceptable to me,” Efstration said.
Republican Sen. Bill Cowsert of Athens, vice chairman of the judiciary committee, said the recent social unrest stemming from the high-profile deaths of Black people, sometimes at the hands of law enforcement, highlight the importance of Georgia’s need for some version of a hate crimes law. Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan unveiled a Senate version of hate crimes legislation this week calling for data collection and other provisions that critics say give it very little chance of passing this year.
Cowsert referenced the May viral video showing the killing of Arbery, an unarmed Black man, who was shot to death after being confronted by white men in a suburban Glynn County neighborhood.
Still, he said he is aware of news reports that say police officers and other first responders are unfairly targeted because of their jobs.
“We need these people to help protect us to maintain order in society to enforce laws, just like this law that we’re passing today,” Cowsert said. “It is imperative that we support all the personnel that put their life on the line for us just as we do these other classes, categories, groups of individuals.”
One of the state’s most vocal supporters of Efstration’s hate crimes law, House Speaker David Ralston, emphasized before Friday’s committee meeting that the Senate should pass a bill that does not include significant changes.
The Blue Ridge Republican has said it’s critical to get the bill across the finish line this year. It has the backing of business and community groups and a litany of current and former elected officials.
Georgia is one of four states without a hate crimes law after legislation passed in 2000 was struck down by the Georgia Supreme Court four years later for being too vague.
“House Bill 426 has been before the State Senate for 469 days now,” Ralston’s spokesman Kaleb McMichen said. “Time to get it to the governor’s desk is fleeting fast. We encourage the Senate to act quickly, approve House Bill 426 and get it to Gov. Kemp’s desk as quickly as possible.”
Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat on the committee, said that equating an occupation that someone chooses is much different than offering protection for a characteristic like the race a person is born with.
Adding police officers to the bill in the context of violent deaths of African Americans as Cowsert did to justify his support for a hate crime law is disrespectful, Parent said.
“It came because of death, Black death, that’s what spurred this on,” Sen. Harold Jones, an Augusta Democrat, said following the meeting. “Don’t cheapen that.”
Judiciary Committee member Rep. Brian Strickland, an attorney, said he wanted Georgia to adopt a hate crimes law before last year’s close House vote sent it to his committee last year.
The Henry County Republican said he could not in good conscience vote to remove protection for responders from the revised hate crimes legislation.
“I believe that we need to make a strong statement in our state against hate, especially given what’s happened the last couple months but given what’s happened for hundreds of years,” he said.