A hate crimes bill that would protect people based on sexual orientation cleared a major hurdle on Thursday by passing in the Georgia House.
While the bill doesn’t include gender identity as a protected class, legal experts say the inclusion of gender in the bill will cover transgender people.
It is the first time that an LGBTQ-inclusive hate crimes bill has passed in either chamber of the Georgia legislature.
Jeff Graham, executive director for Georgia Equality, called it “a historic moment for Georgia.”
“A bill that was first passed at the state level in California in 1984 and has been a priority of Georgia’s LGBTQ community since the early 1990s has finally passed Georgia’s House of Representatives,” said Graham in a press release. “Georgia Equality is proud to have worked in coalition with ADL [Anti-Defamation League] on hate crime legislation and Reps. Calvin Smyre, Karla Drenner and Chuck Efstration, who have been tireless advocates of this important issue.”
The bill passed 96 to 64 with only three hours to spare until the end of Crossover Day — the final day by which legislation must pass in one chamber of the legislature to remain active.
Shelley Rose, ADL’s deputy regional director, praised the move.
"While we cannot outlaw anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, transphobia or other forms of bigotry, we can significantly improve hate crime response in Georgia by joining the 45 other states and the District of Columbia in putting hate crime legislation on the books,” she said in a press release.
House Bill 426 now goes to the Senate for consideration where, if approved, it would become law — barring a veto by Gov. Brian Kemp.
It was a tense week for supporters of the bill. It passed out of the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 25 and was scheduled for a vote before the full House on Monday of this week. But both Monday and Tuesday’s session went by without a vote.
The bill was being held up by evangelical opponents, who misrepresented the bill by claiming it would lead to pastors being arrested for preaching against homosexuality from the pulpit, sources told Project Q Atlanta.
But the bill finally came up for a vote late Thursday night, leading lawmakers who supported it to give a standing ovation from the House chamber once it passed.
'We want to move Georgia forward'
Efstration (top photo), a Republican from Dacula who sponsored the legislation, introduced the bill from the well of the House by citing several crimes committed recently in Georgia because of the victims’ race or religion.
“Now I know that the hour is late tonight, but I want to implore you that throughout history, we’ve seen how hate can be used as a powerful tool,” he said. “It can be used to gain power for a select few, it can be used to intimidate and harass a specific group, and it can be used to undermine a government premise on equality and the rights of the people to live in freedom.”
Smyre, a Democrat and the longest-service member of the legislature, urged lawmakers to pass the bill.
“House Bill 426 protects all of us in our communities and sends a message that we will stand together even amongst our differences,” he said. “This has nothing to do with what I hear about religious freedoms. I just feel very, very strongly that we’re at this juncture that we want to move Georgia forward and I think that the right thing for us to do is to pass [the bill].”
Rep. Sheri Gilligan, a Republican from Cumming, said the state should be proud not to have a hate crimes law.
“We are lucky here in Georgia that we have not written such injustice into our laws,” she said. “We are lucky that in Georgia, all crime victims are equal in the eyes of the law regardless of their skin color or the skin color of their assailant. There is really only one way to keep our laws color blind and dedicated to equality for everyone. Please oppose this bill.”
A last-ditch effort by Rep. David Stover to table the bill — effectively killing it for the year — failed.
House Bill 426 would impose heightened penalties for crimes committed “because of the individual’s belief or perception” regarding the victim’s sexual orientation, gender, race, color, religion, national origin, mental disability or physical disability.
If HB 426 becomes law, someone convicted of a crime motivated by bias would face between three months and a year in prison plus fines up to $5,000 for a misdemeanor, and at least two years in prison for a felony. The legislation enhances the penalties for misdemeanors, aggravated misdemeanors and felonies, and mandates that felony sentences not be suspended or probated.
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.”