Georgia House Speaker David Ralston said that anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” legislation “is a solution in search of a problem," and he acknowledged the severity of the state’s HIV epidemic.
Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge, made the comments in a media session Thursday at the State Capitol just days ahead of the Jan. 14 opening of the legislative session.
He questioned the level of support for “religious freedom” legislation among House members.
“I’m on record as being very concerned that that is a solution in search of a problem,” Ralston said. “I’m even more concerned that it’s the kind of issue that divides the state.”
He said that the topic takes away from other issues that lawmakers want to address, including job growth and education.
“I would just ask us to pause before we get into an issue that has the potential to tear at the fabric of the state,” he added.
Ralston spoke in December about having “serious concerns” about “religious freedom” legislation. He also made the same argument against the legislation that LGBTQ activists have been making for years – times have changed since the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was signed into federal law in 1993.
HIV ‘a serious issue’
Ralston also signaled his willingness for the House to tackle Georgia’s HIV epidemic. The state is number one in the country in the rate of new HIV diagnoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
“We can take a look at that within our budget expenditures along with other health issues that are out there and I’m certainly open to it,” he said. “It is a problem, it’s a serious issue and it’s one that I think we can’t take a blind eye to.”
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. That bill included language from a hate crimes measure introduced by state Rep. Meagan Hanson, a Brookhaven Republican who was ousted from her seat by gay attorney Matthew Wilson in November.
When asked about the chances of getting a hate crime law on the books this year, Ralston said Hanson “did a great job on that last session” but he wasn’t sure who would sponsor a bill this year.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody introduced a bill,” he said.
Georgia is one of only five states in the nation without a hate crimes law.
Ralston spoke on a variety of other issues including healthcare, voting rights, criminal justice reform, the federal government shutdown and medical marijuana.