Hate crimes plan in Georgia criticized as time grows short

A new proposal to give Georgia a law penalizing hate crimes — under attack from advocates who say it’s too broad it would penalize crimes against nearly everyone and also lacks key protections for transgender people — rolled onto the runway Thursday and promptly went back to the hangar for more work.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee started a meeting that had been delayed by two hours by announcing that a vote on House Bill 426 was off and that there would be only a hearing.

Sen. Jesse Stone, a Waynesboro Republican, said efforts were continuing to “vet out all the ideas that are coming through.” The committee will try again Friday as the remaining days of the legislative session tick past.

At issue is Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan’s proposal to protect so many groups that supporters of a more targeted proposal fear that it’s nearly meaningless. Duncan’s plan would cover people victimized because of their “culture,” because they have been participating in First Amendment-protected activities, or because they’ve been involved in civil rights activities.

“Hate crimes laws are supposed to be protecting people’s immutable characteristics, what they can’t or should not have to change about themselves,” said Allison Padilla-Goodman, vice president of the southern division of the Anti-Defamation League.

Georgia has gone 16 years without a hate crimes law after the state Supreme Court tossed out a previous version.

The state has remained one of four without such a law. Many conservatives have been cool to the idea. Cole Muzio, the executive director of the conservative group Family Policy Alliance of Georgia, told the committee Thursday that the bill wouldn’t save lives. “What it does do, is it does create thought crimes,” Muzio said. “And it does encourage us not to look at how we’re the same, not to look at how we’re all made in the image of God, but to look at how we’re the other.”

The House last year narrowly approved a proposal that would add extra jail time onto sentences for crimes motivated by the victim’s “actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability, or physical disability.”

But the bill ended up marooned in the Senate. That changed after a 25-year-old black man named Ahmaud Arbery was pursued and killed in February near Brunswick. A white father and son are charged in his death. The pressure from business groups and others became unbearable after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked nationwide protests over racial injustice and inequality.

“We are quite frankly dissatisfied that here we are, yet again, and we’re having a conversation about hate crimes and no action will be taken tonight,” said the Rev. James Woodall, state president of the Georgia NAACP. “As we have this conversation there are people literally dying.”

Duncan, who had done nothing to advance the House bill, announced he would back a hate crimes law. But it would be his own version, bringing “a level of change that is much broader and much deeper” than the House measure.

“The desire, and the immediate need, is for the strongest hate crimes law in the country to show up on our books here in Georgia,” Duncan said Wednesday.

Protections in Duncan’s version would include most of the House categories, but also age, ancestry, creed, culture, ethnicity, homelessness, sex, armed forces veteran status, having been involved in civil rights activities or having exercised rights protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. Duncan’s plan wouldn’t add extra time to prison sentences, but create a separate crime of bias intimidation covering attacks causing serious bodily injury or on property.

House members said Duncan was wrecking a delicate compromise. House Speaker David Ralston is pushing heavily for the House’s original version. Fellow Republican Gov. Brian Kemp says he looks forward to working with lawmakers.

Democrat Calvin Smyre of Columbus, an African American who is the longest serving member of the state House, said it would be “catastrophic” if the session ended next week without a bill.

“I think it would be a stain on the General Assembly I don’t know that we could ever live down,” he said.

Five openly gay Georgia House members on Thursday lambasted Duncan’s proposal.

“If you include everyone any time, you’re protecting no one,” Brookhaven Democrat Matthew Wilson said. Duncan’s bill doesn’t include protections for gender or gender identity; that could leave transgender people unprotected.

“To say that that is a serious bill is incredibly offensive, because of the group that needs this law the most is not even included in the bill,” Wilson said.

Padilla-Goodman also noted Duncan’s bill wouldn’t apply to crimes that don’t cause serious bodily injury, such as simple assault or intimidation.

Georgia’s original hate crimes law applied to crimes committed “out of bias or prejudice,” but listed no protected categories. A unanimous court overturned the law, saying it was so broad it “encompasses every possible partiality or preference.”