Many of Georgia’s biggest firms rally behind a ‘comprehensive’ hate-crimes law

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, right, said he’s “more committed to a hate-crimes law than ever” following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed May 25 while in police custody in Minneapolis. Ralston has urged the state Senate to pass a House bill as is. But Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan says he believes the legislation needs work, which could spell doom for the measure if it has to return to the House, where it passed in its current form in 2019 by a narrow margin. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Many of Georgia’s most powerful corporations urged state lawmakers Monday to adopt a “comprehensive, specific and clear” hate-crimes law when they return to the legislative session next week.

The letter, signed by about 70 corporate executives, was the sharpest signal yet that the state's business titans were forcefully rallying behind legislation that imposes additional penalties on crimes proven to have been motivated by bias.

“We must come together, engage in tough conversations, and find solutions to make our communities and our country a place of hope and not despair, where diversity is celebrated and justice is assured,” read the letter. “Georgia’s economic future and the dignity of our citizens depend on it.”

It was signed by executives from BlackRock, Coca-Cola Co., Delta Air Lines, The Home Depot, Georgia-Pacific, Georgia Power and UPS. In addition, the leaders of the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, who previously called for "swift" passage of the legislation, added their names.  

The groups also launched a new website, www.passhatecrimesga.com, to further the initiative.

Georgia is one of four states in the nation without such a measure after a previous law was declared unconstitutional in 2004. Last year, the Georgia House narrowly passed a version of the measure, House Bill 426, that was bottled up in a Senate committee.

Sponsored by state Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, the measure would allow stiffer sentences for anyone convicted of targeting a victim based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability.

The calls for the bill's passage gained new urgency amid outrage over the slaying of Ahmaud Arbery in coastal Georgia, who was gunned down in February while running outside Brunswick. Prosecutors say his suspected killer blurted out a racial epithet minutes after Arbery collapsed. 

>>More: Ahmaud Arbery slaying shifts political debate in Georgia

And they have intensified after civil unrest broke out in Atlanta and other cities across the nation following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

State Rep. Al Williams speaks Tuesday at a rally in Brunswick calling for the passage of a state hate-crimes law. AJC/Bert Roughton Jr.

House Speaker David Ralston has vowed to "challenge and implore" Senate lawmakers to pass the hate crimes law "with no delay and no amendments" when the session resumes next Monday. Gov. Brian Kemp has indicated he's receptive to the legislation, but has not taken a firm stance.

First, though, the measure must emerge from the Senate, where some lawmakers have expressed a "philosophical concern" about requiring different punishments for similar crimes.

And Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who presides over the Senate, wants changes to the legislation that would require another unpredictable vote in the House – where it only passed by a narrow margin.

In the letter, the company executives said passage of the measure would send a message that Georgia “is in the business of advancing policies that support the positive change and social impact our communities need in order to build a more just and inclusive world.”

Read the entire letter here:

Dear Members of the General Assembly,

We, the undersigned organizations, stand committed to building a better basis for peace and prosperity across our state and our country, founded on justice for all. We are all employers in Georgia who value diversity, fairness and inclusion.

Georgia businesses employ millions of citizens from all walks of life. They represent our state's rich tapestry of diversity. Georgia is annually hailed as one of the "Best places to do business," and in order to maintain that reputation, and encourage prospective companies to locate here and workers to live here, we must also be in the business of advancing policies that support the positive change and social impact our communities need in order to build a more just and inclusive world.

As the General Assembly goes back into session, we write to urge you to support, approve and sign into law a comprehensive, specific and clear bill against hate crimes. We must all stand strong and united against targeted violence and bigotry.

Diversity extends to a wide range of issues from race and ethnicity, to gender, sexual orientation, religion and physical ability, among other important characteristics that make each of us different but also deserving of protection from any attack that is motivated by hatred for the victim due to bias or prejudice.

We must come together, engage in tough conversations, and find solutions to make our communities and our country a place of hope and not despair, where diversity is celebrated and justice is assured.

Georgia's economic future and the dignity of our citizens depend on it. 

We stand ready to provide you any assistance or support you may need to pass a hate crimes bill in Georgia and affirm that hate has no place in Georgia.

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