Georgia House committee passes hate crimes bill

A hate crimes bill that would protect people based on sexual orientation and gender was approved by a Republican-led committee in the Georgia House on Tuesday.

House Bill 426 passed out of a Judiciary Non-Civil subcommittee on Monday – despite the concerns of conservative evangelical groups – before getting the approval of the full committee on Tuesday morning.

State Rep. Chuck Efstration (top photo), a Republican from Dacula who sponsored the legislation, pointed out that Georgia is one of just a few states without a hate crimes law.

“This seeks to address that with revised provisions here that mirror existing statutes in many of the other 45 states that have similar statutes,” he said Tuesday.

State Rep. Ed Setzler, a Republican from Acworth, said the state hadn’t passed a hate crimes bill because he believes such bills punish thought.  

“We stand in the minority of states in having been right on that,” he said.

Setzler sponsored an anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” bill in 2016 that failed to pass.

Setzler was the only no vote on the committee. The bill will now go to the full Georgia House for consideration.

HB 426 would impose heightened penalties for crimes committed because of someone’s “belief or perception” regarding the victim’s sexual orientation, gender, race, color, religion, national origin, mental disability or physical disability. It does not include gender identity as a protected class, but supporters of the bill said the inclusion of “belief or perception” would allow it to cover transgender people.

Efstration, a former Gwinnett County assistant district attorney, filed the bill on Feb. 21.

'Hate crimes are faked all the time'

 

Law enforcement groups and anti-LGBTQ groups spoke out about the bill during the subcommittee meeting on Monday. 

Peter Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia, said that the hate crimes part of the law would only be used when appropriate.

“I don’t think you’ll see prosecutors just willy nilly charging this statute simply because it is a bifurcated process,” he said. “It will be difficult at times to prove. But of course, if you have acts on social media and other evidence and statements [showing bias towards one of the protected classes], I could see prosecutors using it.”

Cole Muzio, president of the Family Policy Alliance of Georgia, worried that including sexual orientation as a protected class would be a “dangerous and slippery slope.” He also said the bill covers gender identity.

“I know the bill just says gender, but our attorneys are looking very closely at this and believe that based on case law, this means gender identity,” he said. “That’s what we’re getting into. Ten years ago, it didn’t mean that. Ten years from now, this bill will be a very different thing as people read it differently.”

Mike Griffin (top photo), a lobbyist for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, was also troubled by the inclusion of sexual orientation in the bill.

“This doesn’t have gender identity in it, but it becomes a higher standard of prosecution for certain crimes,” he said. “Such classifications do not treat all individuals equally. It sends a message that some people are more valuable than others.”

Jane Robbins, a lobbyist for Concerned Women for America, said HB 426 “violates the spirit of the Constitution” by carving out categories of people “for special protections.”

“I don’t deserve special protection because I’m a woman,” she said. “That really offends me that my boys … ‘Well too bad, you’re white, male, Christian and heterosexual. We don’t really care about you.’”

Robbins also referenced the case of Jussie Smollett, the black gay actor who Chicago police said hired two men to carry out a fake hate crime against him.

“We see how fakeable it is. Hate crimes are faked all the time,” Robbins said. “We just came through three weeks of a national conversation about a faked hate crime. It seems like an odd time to be bringing this up now when you’ve seen what can happen when people just make this up.”

A substitute version of HB 426 passed, creating a new code section in Georgia law instead of amending an existing one. The language of the bill remains the same.

“When a code section is found to be unconstitutional, the safest way to address it is just to create a new code section so that there’s no concern about judicial interpretation after the fact,” Efstration said.

A hate crimes bill that would protect people based on sexual orientation and gender – but not gender identity – made it out of committee last year but failed to get a vote before the full House.

Georgia passed a hate crimes law that did not include sexual orientation or gender identity in 2000, but the Georgia Supreme Court struck it down in 2004 for being “unconstitutionally vague.”

Additional reporting by Ari Bee