Faith leaders call for Georgia lawmakers to pass hate crimes bill

In the midst of unrest across the country, faith leaders in Georgia called for state legislators to enact a hate crimes law.

"We have to take immediate legislative action the very moment the state legislature reopens and pass a hate crimes bill," said Rabbi Peter Berg with The Temple in Atlanta.

Berg was one of several members of the organization Faith in Public Life to speak during a virtual news conference on the issue Thursday afternoon.

"Demonstrate that black lives matter to Georgia by passing a hate crimes bill," said Pastor Daryl Ford of Ikon Community Church.

Georgia's House of Representatives passed House Bill 426 in March 2019, but the legislation stalled in the Senate. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, would increase penalties for those convicted of crimes where the court "determines beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intentionally selected any victim or group of victims or any property as the object of the offense because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability, or physical disability of such victim or group of victims."

Under the legislation, those found guilty of a misdemeanor would be subject to an additional 3 to 12 months of jail time and a $5,000 fine. Those convicted on a felony charge would receive an extra two years on their sentence.

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House Speaker David Ralston has been vocal about his support of the bill.

“The House passed Chairman Efstration’s hate crimes bill last year and it awaits a vote in the Senate," said Spokesman Kaleb McMichen. "Speaker Ralston supports that legislation, and he has challenged the Senate to pass it with no delay and no amendments when session resumes.”

Lt. Governor Geoff Duncan presides over the state Senate and in a statement to FOX 5, said lawmakers can do more:

"We can’t keep dancing around this important issue with overtones of partisan politics and expect the situation to improve. Now is the time for the Senate to step up and deliver a meaningful piece of legislation that makes it crystal clear that Georgia will be the worst place to commit a crime of hate against anyone. I’m looking forward to leading this aggressive charge in the remaining 11 days of the session.

"HB 426 is a solid starting point, but it’s only a one-dimensional approach to a complex issue. I believe the Senate is well-positioned to craft a hate crimes bill that affords victims more protections. Meaningful hate crimes legislation must address important things like law enforcement reporting, ensure due process, close potential loopholes, and empower victims to the maximum extent. I’m looking forward to continuing a dialogue with key stakeholders from around the state. I expect the Senate to take action."

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Rep. Efstration, however, pushed back.

"This legislation was carefully negotiated in 2019 and it's been sitting in the state Senate without a hearing since then.  For an attack that the bill doesn't go far enough, that's just inconsistent with the lack of action that we've seen from the state Senate so far.  I'm hoping that the state Senate will do the right thing and will pass House Bill 426 as soon as session resumes," said Rep. Efstration.

Lawmakers return to the State Capitol on June 15 with 11 days remaining in the 2020 session.