June 26, 2020: An Unusual Legislative Session Comes to an End

After a three month delay, the end is here! On Friday, June 26, 2020, the Georgia General Assembly concluded its legislative session that began January 13. The legislature had been in recess since March 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic and had reconvened to resume the 2020 legislative session on June 15. This has made for a very strange legislative session, if for no other reason than the schedule!  There were officially 11 legislative days left out of the yearly 40-day session and the only constitutional requirement was that the budget had to be passed before July 1.  

Given all the changes that had to be made because of the coronavirus and the three-month recess during the legislative session made for some very strange circumstances. Social distancing requirements made the legislative process slow down and caused a lot of meetings and hearings to happen online. For example, the process of voting the house was very slow because State Representatives were located in different rooms. Some votes took up to 15 minutes.

As Georgia Baptists, we continued to monitor several pieces of legislation that had passed from one chamber to the other before the recess. We also monitored legislation that was brought back up and added to other legislation to be voted on before the end of the 40th day.

(See a video review of some of the legislation that was approaching the Crossover date of March 12.) 

and the legislation considered as the legislature reconvened.

Here is a brief overview of some of the (25) bills we monitored throughout the year and their outcomes:

SB-318 The “Forming Open and Robust University Minds;” FORUM Act (Sen. William Ligon)

This legislation has to do with the freedom of expression on public colleges and universities. The bill protects three things: (1) what students can speak, (2) where they can speak, and (3) who they can speak with. It protects which students are allowed to speak by ensuring that a public college or university may not ban students from engaging in expressive activity on campus. It protects where students can speak by banning outdoor areas (“free speech zones”) on campus where expressive activities are prohibited. It also protects who students can speak with by protecting the right of free association.

The bill was voted out of committee and was approved by the Senate. It then went to the House Higher Education Committee for a hearing and was amended with changes that weakened the bill. It was voted out of committee, but never made to the floor for a vote in the House.

HB-879 Alcohol Home Delivery Bill (Rep. Bret Harrell)

This bill would make it legal for grocery stores to deliver beer and wine to homes in the same as they would be for other food services like groceries. It would allow for the same amount of alchol that could be bought in the store to be delivered. The individual receiving the alcohol would have to meet the same legal requirements of an in store purchase. The person of legal age would have to be the person receiving the order. If this bill passes as is, it will automatically make it legal without local approval. Local government would have the legal ability to forbid it, if they choose to do so.

This legislation has passed the House and was assigned to the Senate Regulated Industries Committee for a hearing. The hearing was held and the bill was amended to change distance requirements for alcohol being sold near colleges and in the rules committee it was amended to allow liquor to be delivered to homes from stores as well. Georgia Baptists opposed the legislation and asked for local communities to have  an “op- in” option and that liquor not be allowed. Our attempts to amend the legislation failed, and it passed both Senate and House. Now it has be signed by the Governor to become law.

HB-958 The Maternity Supportive Housing Act (Rep. Ed Setzler)

This uniquely crafted bill will allow Georgia churches and nonprofits to provide housing in private residences. This legislation will allow mothers over the age of 18 who are in need of supportive housing to care for their newborns and get back on their feet financially. This kind of supportive housing is at no cost to the government and it coordinates with local ordinances and HOAs to make sure community requirements are upheld. 

The bill had a hearing in the House Juvenile Justice Committee and received a favorable vote. The bill was passed by the House on Crossover Day by a 99 to 66 vote. The bill went to the Senate, but never received a committee hearing.

HB-479 Child Victim Protection Act of 2020 (Formerly the 2019 Hidden Predator Act (Rep. Heath Clark) 

This bill would allow adult survivors of child sex abuse to file lawsuits against alleged perpetrators and organizations that willfully covered it up. The bill raises the age limit for filing civil suits against alleged sexual abusers from 23 to 38 years of age. The legislation would also revive the statute of limitations (a year-long window beginning in July 2020) to allow victims of child sexual abuse the ability to pursue civil action against entities which, even though they were mandatory reporters, knowingly and intentionally covered up the crime.

HB 479 was passed out of the House Judiciary Committee and passed by House in a floor vote of 147 for and 5 against, on crossover day. The bill went to the Senate and never received a hearing.

HB-426 Hate Crimes Legislation (Rep. Chuck Efstration)

Among other categories, this legislation enhances penalties for crimes based on the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender. Such crimes are already punished under Georgia law based on the nature of the act – an assault or murder, for example, is punished as assault or murder, regardless of the motive or the identity or characteristics of the victim.

Southern Baptists and Georgia Baptists have historically and categorically opposed hate crimes legislation since 2007. We have been concerned this type of legislation, for all practical purposes, ends up becoming legislation that punishes individuals based upon their thoughts or beliefs.

The original version passed the House with a vote of 96-64 on March 7 of last year (2019). Then it had a hearing in the Senate Judiciary committee and was finally amended in the Rules Committee to add “sex” to the categories of special protection and a private registry requirement was added to keep up with incidents and individuals accused of Hate Crimes even if they are not guilty. See final version here. The Senate and the House passed the amended version and the governor signed the bill into law Friday, June 26.

HR-378-Constitutional Amendment for Pari-mutual Betting, Casino Gambling and Sports Betting (Rep. Ron Stephens) 

This legislation was a constitutional amendment that had been originally introduced by Rep. Ron Stephens during the 2019 legislative session. It was for the purpose of legalizing casino gambling in Georgia. The casino gambling was to be called “Destination Resorts.” On the day before the 28th day (Crossover), the House Regulated Industries Committee met and voted out House Resolution 378 with Pari-mutual Betting, Casino Gambling and Sports Betting added to it. The bill was never brought up for a consideration in the House for a vote because there were not enough votes between Republicans and Democrats to pass it.

Since this legislation did not pass one of the chambers before Crossover Day, there was talk that it would be brought back up during the final 11 days of the legislative session. It was! Rep. Stephens amended Senate Resolution 841 and added the language of House Resolution to it and it was passed out of the House Regulated Industries Committee to the Rules Committee to be considered for a vote. Thankfully because of contacts from constituents, this legislation and no other gambling legislation was considered. This makes six years in a row that gambling expansion has been stopped in Georgia!

SB-221 Religious Freedom Restoration Act

During the 2019 session, Senator Marty Harbin introduced the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) again in the Senate. SB 221 was introduced in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Senator Harbin declined testimony until he had more time to explain the legislation. The good news is that this legislation was still alive, and a hearing could have been scheduled to be moved upon in 2020. However, even after returning from the legislative recess, no hearing was scheduled or an attempt to put it on other legislation.

We have been working hard for five years trying to pass a RFRA in the Georgia General Assembly. We are not intending to give up on this important protection for our citizens. Stay tuned for more information on how we will be working together with other faith groups to make sure Georgians have full religious liberty protection in practicing their faith and doing missions in the state of Georgia. See here for more info on RFRA.

This is Not Really the End

Please stay tuned for further updates we prepare for the 2021 legislative session. We will try to keep regular updates on our Facebook and Twitter page. Also, please check out our Public Affairs Ministry web page at gabaptist.org/publicaffairs for educational information and to register for email updates.

Also, please feel free to call upon me to come and speak at associational and church events to call attention to the moral and civic concerns of our day. Thanks for your prayers and support as we continue to fight the good fight!

Published June 30, 2020