The Georgia General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a historic hate crimes bill on Tuesday, a measure that for the first time in state history includes protections for LGBTQ people.
The measure passed the state Senate by a 47 to 6 vote. Less than an hour later, the state House approved the Senate version with a 127 to 38 vote. The bill now moves to Gov. Brain Kemp for his signature.
“There are very few times that members of the legislative body get called upon at a defining moment in our history, but this is a defining moment for Georgia,” House Speaker David Ralston said. “It is a moment where in the midst of a global pandemic and widespread unrest, Georgia has stood strong for what is right.”
Passage of House Bill 426 on Tuesday capped a whirlwind of activity surrounding the legislation in recent days after months of increasing public pressure for lawmakers to take action. The bill, from Rep. Chuck Efstration (top photo), a Dacula Republican, passed the House in March 2019 but then stalled in the Senate.
The Senate vote on Tuesday was the first time that chamber has ever passed an LGBTQ-inclusive hate crimes bill.
“We have a long history in Georgia of embedded discrimination. We can’t deny it. We can’t run from it. But we can change it,” said Sen. Bill Cowsert, an Athens Republican who pushed the legislation through a contentious legislative process in recent days.
“Will this bill change the hearts and minds of Georgians? No, that comes from inside. Can it send the message that Georgia is too busy for hate? That we intend to treat each other fairly and justly no matter what your characteristics may be? Are we willing to be loving to each other? I think so. I think the time to pass the bill is right now. We don’t stand for hate,” he added.
‘Georgia is moving forward’
The legislation enhances penalties for some misdemeanors – simple assault, simple battery, battery, criminal trespass and theft by taking – as well as all felonies if the crime targets a victim based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, and mental or physical disability.
The penalty enhancements are three months to a year in prison plus fines up to $5,000 for the five classes of misdemeanors, or at least two years in prison and a fine up to $5,000 for a felony. The bill mandates that judges disclose the portion of a sentence that is enhanced by the hate crimes law.
The legislation also calls for law enforcement agencies to track hate crimes and report them to the GBI. The bill proposes a new incident report for hate crimes to be filled out by law enforcement agencies, but it exempts hate crimes from the state’s Open Records Act if no arrest is made. That means reports of those incidents would not have to be made public – unlike other crime incident reports.
“The data piece is important so we can know where the hate crimes are taking place in Georgia,” said Sen. Harold Jones, an Augusta Democrat.
“We are setting the stage that Georgia is moving forward, and we are showing the model of what bipartisan legislation is all about,” he added.
Sen. Jesse Stone, a Waynesboro Republican, said the votes didn’t exist to pass the measure in the Republican-controlled Senate until this week. Stone is chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which killed the hate crimes measure in 2019 and stubbornly refused to hold a hearing on the bill for 15 months.
“It took the events that are shaking our nation and the leadership of our lieutenant governor to help forge a consensus, particularly among my Republican brethren,” Stone said.
The debate over the hate crimes lasted for more than two hours and included emotional testimony from several lawmakers recounting their experience as hate crimes victims.
Sen. Donzella James, an Atlanta Democrat, told of facing racial slurs and being hit in the head with a bottle near Ebenezer Baptist Church when she was just 12 years old. Sen. Renee Unterman, a Buford Republican who is Jewish, talked about the harassment she faced from white supremacists during her terms as mayor of Loganville. Sen. Horacena Tate, an Atlanta Democrat, told colleagues about the discrimination she faced from teachers in primary schools and as a student at the University of Georgia.
“I know it was a heavy lift. I know it had to be,” Tate said. “It is important to all of Georgia.”
The legislative session – interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic – could end as soon as Friday. If Kemp signs the bill, it would replace a hate crimes law that was struck down by the Georgia Supreme Court in 2004 for being “unconstitutionally vague.” That measure did not include sexual orientation or gender identity, and it was criticized Tuesday by James for being gutted before it was passed.
‘Support our law enforcement’
The vote on Tuesday came after months of public pressure for the Senate to take action on the hate crimes bill – and days of public and private negotiating by lawmakers over the legislation.
On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the legislation, but the panel adjourned without taking any further action.
On Friday, Cowsert (photo) introduced a substitute measure during a Judiciary Committee meeting that added first responders to the list of protected classes included in the original legislation. That touched off a contentious debate with Democrats on the panel and ignited a firestorm of criticism from supporters of the hate crimes bill, including Georgia Equality, the Georgia NAACP, Sen. Nikema Wiliams, chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia, and Democrats in both chambers of the legislature.
Cowsert’s substitute bill was passed by the committee along a party-line vote. The senator said he added first responders to the hate crimes bill to offer protections to police officers that he said are increasingly under attack during protests for racial justice and equality.
“You have law enforcement officers in Atlanta, Georgia, that are walking off the job because they are not appreciated for putting their lives on the line trying to maintain law and order,” Cowsert said Friday.
“There are wives of police officers who have been quoted in the newspaper telling their husbands do not bring the police cruiser home and park it in our driveway because we are afraid we are going to be targeted because you are a law enforcement officer,” he added.
Cowsert’s proposal comes after weeks of protests over the killings of black men at the hands of white men or while in police custody. Protests in Georgia in recent weeks have called for racial justice and an end to police brutality.
But Cowsert said law enforcement officers are the ones under attack. He compared crimes against law enforcement officers and hate crimes faced by others in protected categories in the legislation – race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender and mental or physical disability – as “the same problem.”
“We need to support and protect our law enforcement from being the victims of terror and intimidation and violent crime against them because people are unhappy,” he said.
Current state law already offers special protections for law enforcement officers. Jones criticized Cowsert’s proposal as making light of members of the other protected groups in the legislation. They have faced state-sponsored discrimination for decades, he said.
“They have a documented history of being discriminated against by the state,” Jones said. “That’s how they were able to become a protected class. It wasn’t just persons didn’t like them. They could document a history by the state that they’ve been discriminated against through state laws, policies and practices.’
State Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat, called Cowsert’s first-responder proposal “a slap in the face” to the people that the hate crimes bill is supposed to protect — people who have immutable characteristics that can’t change.
“To sort of equate an occupation or this status of having been a paramedic or emergency medical technician with being African-American when it’s very clear from the stats that we have the single group that’s been the most targeted are African-American individuals. When you try to equate those things, the problem is not the same when you’re talking about an occupation and when you’re talking about people’s characteristics,” Parent said.
Jones said Cowsert included police officers simply because people don’t like them and not because they have faced decades of discrimination.
“This legislative body has shown over and over that it will protect law enforcement. It has consistently shown that it will do that. Why put it in a bill which has been triggered by the actions which you have just described in those same persons,” Jones said.
On Monday, Cowsert's addition of first responders as a protected category was stripped from the hate crimes bill by the Senate Rules Committee, according to the AJC. That language was added to House Bill 838 to prohibit hate crimes targeting police officers, firefighters and EMTs. The Senate passed that measure by a 33 to 20 vote on Tuesday before it passed the larger hate crimes bill. While the vote on hate crimes went on in the Senate, the House passed the first-responder measure.
‘Outraged and disgusted’
Georgia Equality called Cowsert’s substitute measure on Friday “a poison pill” that would kill the hate crimes measure. The Georgia NAACP criticized Cowsert’s proposal and said state law already protects police officers.
“You can choose to join law enforcement. You can’t choose to be Black,” the NAACP said Friday.
Williams (bottom photo) was more blunt in her criticism of Cowsert’s efforts.
“I am outraged and disgusted that Geoff Duncan and Senate Republicans are only pretending to act on a long-overdue hate crimes bill in order to add additional protections for law enforcement members who have been murdering Black Americans,” Williams said.
“On Juneteenth, the day we celebrate Black liberation, this is insulting to the lives and families of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks, and outright malicious to the Black Georgians who have been asking for the bare minimum from our government for decades,” Williams added.
On June 17, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan offered his own hate crimes measure that was quite different from H.B. 426. The bill would make a hate crime a stand-alone criminal charge, and the proposal does not include gender among a list of protected classes. The bill also adds several protected classes – including culture and people exercising religious beliefs or their First Amendment rights.
The legislation also mandates that law enforcement agencies track hate crimes and report them to the GBI, which is not included in H.B. 426. In addition, Duncan's bill proposes that incident reports include hate crimes in which there is no arrest would not be subject to the state’s Open Records Act. The portion of Duncan's bill tracking hate crimes was added to the measure approved in the House and Senate on Tuesday.
On Friday, Duncan praised Cowsert’s substitute hate crimes measure.
“I appreciate the work that the House has put into this issue, and adding first responders deserves to receive widespread support. In recent months, we’ve seen hate crimes against regular citizens, and we’ve seen hate crimes committed against first responders. Neither are acceptable, and we will not tolerate it in our state,” Duncan said.
Democratic lawmakers in both chambers criticized Cowsert’s version of the hate crimes bill and said in a statement that it’s “harmful and undermines” the original legislation.
“Hate crime legislation is meant to protect those who suffer from a violent personal or property-related crime that is motivated by a bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity. By including professional affiliation as a protected class, Senate Republicans have decided to ignore the cries of Georgians who are pleading for justice,” the Democratic caucuses said.