Shifting winds in the Capitol put social conservatives on the defensive

State Sen. Greg Dolezal (left), R-Cumming, watches as his bill, SB 173, a proposal to use taxpayer funding to send public school students to private schools, failed in a close vote. The legislature was in session for the 27th day of the 2019 General Assembly. Bob Andres,

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

State Sen. Greg Dolezal (left), R-Cumming, watches as his bill, SB 173, a proposal to use taxpayer funding to send public school students to private schools, failed in a close vote. The legislature was in session for the 27th day of the 2019 General Assembly. Bob Andres,

The wind has shifted at the state Capitol. Whether this is an errant breeze or isolated gust, it's too soon to tell. But in the last 48 hours or so, a different group of people have been winning.

They are not the social conservatives who have dominated the marble-floored hallways for the last two decades. These victories have been aimed at suburban women in Georgia, who proved so crucial in 2018 and are likely to be more so in 2020.

On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed out Senate Bill 150 on a unanimous vote. The measure, authored by Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, would be a rare restriction on firearm ownership — and is opposed by many Second Amendment enthusiasts.

The legislation would bar the possession of guns by those convicted of family violence, even misdemeanors. Key testimony came from Janet Paulson of Acworth, a mother of twin boys who told her gun-collecting husband in 2015 that she wanted a divorce.

“There were 74 firearms in my home. I asked them to be confiscated, but they let him leave with a handgun in his truck,” Paulson said. “Five nights later, he ambushed me and shot me six times with a 9-mm at close range.” She’s now paralyzed from the waist down.

Just as important was what the Senate Judiciary Committee didn't approve that afternoon. State Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, told the committee that he would delay his presentation of SB 221, a "religious liberty" measure which critics say is intended to offer legal protection to conservative Christian businesses that refuse LGBT customers.

The General Assembly has been debating the issue for the last six years.

Although Gov. Brian Kemp has said he would sign a “mirror image” of the 1993 federal version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Harbin put the bill on a path that would delay a vote until next year.

“I think that would be a wise decision,” said Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, the committee chairman.

Later that day, word spread that a pair of bills that would ban abortions upon detection of a fetus' heartbeat were to be sidelined in favor of a measure backed by Governor Kemp. The "heartbeat" bills — one filed in the House, another in the Senate — would prohibit nearly all abortions in Georgia. Kemp's is a "trigger" bill that would go into effect if and when the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.

The governor’s bill would not alter the status quo, nor offer anti-abortion forces a legal vehicle to seek the overturning of the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

Things could change, but you can understand why social conservative forces in the Capitol have been rather stone-faced this week.

On Tuesday, another surprise erupted. A proposal to use state cash to send public school students to private schools failed in a close vote on the Senate floor. SB 173 had been opposed by teacher groups and the Georgia PTA. Senate President pro tem Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, was among a handful of Republicans who helped send the bill to defeat on a vote of 25 to 28.

The bill could come up for reconsideration on Thursday. That’s Crossover Day, an often-violated deadline for bills to pass one chamber or the other.

Crossover Day could provide the true test of whether the winds of change are blowing at the Capitol. In the House, a vote has been scheduled for HB 426, a measure that would increase penalties for crimes arising from bias or prejudice based on "race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability, or physical disability."

The legislation, authored by state Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, would replace a hate crime law overturned as “constitutionally vague” by the Georgia Supreme Court in 2004.

It is the protection offered to gays and lesbians that has been the sticking point in the Legislature ever since. “The protected classes in the bill are consistent with protected classes in other states and in federal legislation,” Efstration said.

Critics have condemned similar legislation for establishing “thought crimes.” Efstration, who spent four years on the staff of the Gwinnett County district attorney, said that description is wrong-headed.

“The jury would first have to find the defendant guilty of the underlying charge. Then a second trial takes place, where the jury considers the hate crime classification. I believe that’s good policy,” he said.

“My view is that, when somebody commits a hate crime, they are not only attacking an individual. It’s conveying a threat to others. And that’s why a hate crime statute is so important,” he said. Society needs to answer that threat.

Several Democrats have signed onto the bill, including state Rep. Karla Drenner of Avondale Estates, the first openly gay member of the Legislature, elected in 2000. Remember that date.

Efstration says he anticipates broad bipartisan support. State Rep. Sharon Cooper of Marietta, who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee, is among those Republicans who say they will likely support the measure.

However, Efstration may still be in need of a Dan Ponder moment.

Georgia’s first hate crime bill was headed for defeat on March 16, 2000, when state Rep. Dan Ponder Jr., a southwest Georgia lawmaker set to retire in two days, went to the well.

A white Republican, Ponder delivered one of the most memorable speeches ever heard in the House chamber. He raked up years of personal and family torment on the topics of race and religion. He pointed to the murder of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was beaten, tortured, and left to die in 1998. The crime had spurred the hate crime legislation under debate.

Animal rights legislation had just been addressed by the House, Ponder noted. “We talked with revulsion about cats being wired together with barbed wire. Surely, surely, Matthew Shepard’s being beaten and hung up on a barbed wire fence and left to die is no less revolting,” the lawmaker said.

Ponder is credited with moving enough votes to pass the bill. But there was a price. The influence of religious conservatives was on the rise in the Capitol, and House members refused to add “sexual orientation” as a possible motivation for hate crimes.

And so all protected categories were removed from the legislation. Four years later, the state Supreme Court would cite the absence of these categories in its declaration that Georgia’s hate crime law was unconstitutional.

It seems that these winds, whether of change or fate, have blown us back to precisely the same place we were 19 years ago.