Anti-gay lawmakers dig in, kill Georgia adoption bill

Lawmakers in the Georgia Senate who backed an anti-LGBT measure helped tank an adoption bill in the closing minutes of the legislative session to avoid the bill passing without their discrimination provision.

The legislative standoff among Republicans continued past midnight on Thursday, undercutting attempts by the House and Gov. Nathan Deal to push through a popular, bipartisan bill to modernize the state's adoption laws without an anti-LGBT amendment. Anti-gay lawmakers in the Senate held the effort hostage on the last day of the legislative session and blocked a compromise bill shortly before 1 a.m. on Friday. They adjourned and the House quickly followed.

“I think we’ve had a good session but had a disappointing finish, obviously," House Speaker David Ralston said after the session ended. 

"We worked awfully hard on something I thought was extremely important for children in Georgia, particularly those in foster care. And I have to honest with you and tell you that I had hoped the Senate would chose to do the right thing. They went another direction. That’s their prerogative. So we’ll try again next year, it’s just that we’re going to lose time with hundreds if not thousands of kids in Georgia," Ralston added.

The legislative standoff was weeks in the making. On March 16, the Senate Judiciary Committee hijacked the adoption bill, House Bill 159 from Rep. Bert Reeves, by adding an amendment from Sen. William Ligon (photo). His amendment would allow private adoption agencies receiving public funds to discriminate against LGBT couples and others based on their mission statement. 

That prompted an outcry and push from elected officials – including Deal, Ralston and Rules Committee Chair Sen. Jeff Mullis – to reconsider the "extreme" ban. Ligon and the Senate Judiciary Committee refused on March 23. That tabled Reeves' adoption bill.

So on Mach 28, the House tried again by amending Senate Bill 130 to include Reeves' adoption bill and passed it 159-0. That set up the showdown on Thursday, the last day of the legislative session.

Deal made it clear – again – that he wanted an adoption bill without the anti-LGBT amendment attached. Via the AJC:

Slade: “And by clean bill, you’re talking about some of the language that got injected [in the Senate], in this case the ‘religious liberty’ issue. How do you feel about that?”

Deal: “I did not feel that this was an appropriate amendment to it. I felt like it opened up a big area of controversy that we did not need. We should have had a clear, straight path for a child to be put in an adoptive home where their life could hopefully be transformed from what they have gone through…”

After midnight on Thursday, the Senate finally took up the bill. Sen. Blake Tillery proposed two minor amendments to the bill, a maneuver that limits additional amendments from being offered, and would have decreased the likelihood of any anti-LGBT “religious freedom” measures being added.

“And I am asking, please vote yes on amendment on 1A, yes on amendment 1, and yes on the underlying bill, Senate Bill 130, so that families across our state can use Georgia law when they decide to make an adoption,” Tillery pleaded from the Senate floor. 

“We can get the 12,000 children that are in foster homes across our state in a warm bed, in a warm home," he added.

But Ligon took issue with the amendments and asked Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle to rule whether the amendments were frivolous. Cagle ruled that one of the amendments, which corrected a spelling error, was frivolous. Lawmakers then quickly offered several amendments to the bill. 

But Sen. Renee Unterman then moved to table Senate Bill 130, which would kill the bill for the current session.

“This is a very emotional issue, it needs a lot of work on it. It’s 12:46 I think a motion to table is in order,” Unterman said before the motion failed 22 to 31. 

Ligon then made a motion to send the bill back to committee, which passed 27 to 17 with an unrecorded show of hands. That allowed five senators to vote without going on a record to kill the legislation. Nine other senators abstained.

The Senate then quickly adjourned for the year.

“We worked for two years on an issue, and we worked out in the open on it so [the Senate] knew what we were doing. We passed a measure many weeks ago, so they knew it was coming. But I am disappointed," Ralston said.

Ligon defended the amendment and his efforts to hijack the adoption bill. Via the AJC:

“We’ve worked with our leadership,” said state Sen. Bill Ligon, R-Brunswick, who led the effort to add the controversial amendment. “And there was a consensus it needed more time. I think it’s proper for the Senate to be able to have that time to look at it and have its input. I mean, we are one-half of the Legislature.”

Reeves blasted the legislative maneuvering that killed his adoption bill in a Facebook post. Via Georgia Pol:

I will go into more detail at a later time, but unfortunately a few Senators, instead of filing their own bill to pursue an independent policy that had nothing to do with the way I was attempting to improve the adoption process in Georgia, attached some very controversial provisions to my bill, and even after urging the passage of my bill, as I authored it, by the Governor, the Speaker of the House, and also many State Senators – the language and the controversy it caused ultimately killed my bill and all my efforts to get a Senate vote on the bill I authored. It is a long story filled with political drama and theatre and it represents why so much is wrong with politics. And I will tell it, another day.

Georgia Unites Against Discrimination, which advocates for LGBT equality, criticized Ligon and other lawmakers for "doubling down" on LGBT discrimination. 

This should have been a no brainer. Georgia’s adoption laws have not been updated since 1990. HB 159 was the product of decades of work by child welfare advocates to modernize and improve Georgia’s adoption and foster care system. The bill passed the House with strong bipartisan support. It was endorsed by both House Speaker David Ralston and Governor Nathan Deal.

But a handful of Senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee held the bill hostage by tacking on anti-LGBT amendments. And even after thousands of Georgians, leading national child welfare organizations, and elected leaders called on the Senate to do what is right and advance a clean bill—committee members refused, and doubled down on their commitment to anti-LGBT discrimination.