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New session creates chance for Georgia’s hot-button issues to bubble up

Emboldened by the election of Brian Kemp as governor, some Republican Georgia lawmakers say they’ll push for long-sought conservative goals of greater religious rights, increased gun access and tougher abortion restrictions.

While bills dealing with religion, guns and abortion often haven’t advanced in recent years, that could change since Kemp gave these proposals the green light when he was running for governor, signaling that he would sign them into law if they reach his desk.

Kemp said during his campaign that he supports legislation to elevate religious believers’ rights, let anyone who is allowed to own a gun carry it without paying for a state license, and sign the “toughest abortion laws in the country.”

And Lt. Gov.-elect Geoff Duncan said he wants to run a chamber where senators are allowed to express their opinions and bring legislation forward, even if it’s on those more hot-button issues.

But these initiatives still face substantial obstacles.

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Some Republican leaders of the state House and Senate would prefer to prioritize rural needs and school safety, while Democrats are focused on health care expansion and voting rights.

In addition, many lawmakers and voters resist supporting measures that could be perceived as hurting Georgia’s reputation as a pro-business state that has largely avoided major social conflicts.

Religious liberty

Every year, bills giving greater legal protections for religious organizations are introduced and eventually fail.

Gay rights groups say “religious liberty” bills amount to legalized discrimination. International companies such as Apple and Time Warner have threatened to boycott the state over such measures. And Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a religious liberty proposal in 2016.

But supporters of religious liberty legislation say it’s necessary to defend themselves against potential government persecution of their faith.

“It ensures that free exercise of faith is an important First Amendment right,” said state Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick. “Do we want to give it the highest level of protection in the courts or the lowest level of protection?”

Religious freedom laws prohibit governments from restricting a person’s exercise of religion unless they show a “compelling government interest.” The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, has been in place since 1993, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it doesn’t apply to states. Twenty-one states have passed their own versions of the law.

No bill has been introduced yet for the upcoming legislative session, and state Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, who sponsored a measure last year, declined to comment.

House Speaker David Ralston has said he has “serious concerns” about RFRA and similar measures.

“The states that have passed it, or have talked about it the last few years, have not had a good experience,” the Republican from Blue Ridge said in an interview last month with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I don’t want Georgia to have that experience. I think we have to recognize that the world’s a much different place than when Bill Clinton signed a bill that the Congress passed in ‘93.”

The Metro Atlanta Chamber is a consistent opponent of religious liberty measures at the Georgia Capitol.

State lawmakers should instead focus on issues that improve the state’s economy, such as education, workforce development and transit funding, said Katie Kirkpatrick, the chief policy officer for the chamber.

“Our team will evaluate legislation as it is introduced and will oppose legislation that is discriminatory in nature or harmful to our ability to create, recruit and retain jobs to protect our state’s top-rated business climate,” she said.

Religious leaders say they’re hopeful that Kemp will deliver for them, despite pressure from business interests.

“It’s inspirational to know that the governor will support it and sign it. I appreciate his willingness to stand with religious liberty and freedom,” said Garland Hunt, the senior pastor of The Father’s House in Peachtree Corners. “I hope people vote on their values and are more focused on statesmanship than their own re-election.”

Guns

Gun control activists are coming off a bit of a high after President Donald Trump last month signed federal legislation outlawing bump stocks, a device that enables semiautomatic guns to fire rapidly.

Now activists are setting their sights on closing what they believe is a loophole in the federal reporting system.

Current law mandates the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to purge records of people unwillingly committed for mental health treatment from a federal database after five years. Federal law bans the mentally ill from owning guns for life, and Georgia is the only state that purges the records after five years.

“There is no good policy reason for only looking at mental health records for the last five years,” said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur.

One interest Kemp made clear is his support for allowing anyone who is legally able to carry a handgun to do so without paying the state for a permit. Such legislation has already been filed.

State Rep. Matt Gurtler of Tiger, who sponsored House Bill 2, has a reputation in the House of being the lone Republican dissenter on many initiatives backed by his party. That reputation gives his legislation a slim chance of passing, but it’s possible that some form of the proposal could gain traction if introduced by another lawmaker.

House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, said permitless carrying of guns could get some legs this session.

“I don’t have anything on my agenda, but with 236 members of the Legislature, I’m sure that somebody is working on something,” he said.

But Ralston said Wednesday that he’s taking a ‘very, very cautious view’ of any proposal to allow concealed firearms without a permit, in part out of concern such legislation could hurt suburban members of the House Republican caucus.

Abortion

The appointment of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh last year, coupled with Kemp’s election, has given anti-abortion activists hope of outlawing the procedure outright.

They believe passing limiting legislation could eventually lead to a legal battle that would overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established the constitutional right to have an abortion. Current law bans abortions after 20 weeks unless the mother’s life is at risk or the fetus would not survive outside the womb.

Joshua Edmonds, the executive director of the Georgia Life Alliance, said he believes 2019 is the year that abortion could be effectively banned in the state.

“I am 100 percent confident that Governor Kemp intends to make good on his commitment,” Edmonds said.

Edmonds said he is working with lawmakers to encourage one to file what is called a “fetal heartbeat” bill that would outlaw abortions once a heartbeat is detected.

“We want to see more pro-life legislation passed,” he said. “The state and United State supreme courts are much friendlier to protecting the sanctity of life and ruling that way moving forward.”

Abortion rights advocates said they are always ready to fight any bills that might limit access.

“Regardless of who is in the governor’s office or what the Supreme Court looks like, (Democrats) had major pickups in the Senate and in the House,” said state Sen. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta.

Plus, she said, women are still energized coming out of the November elections that sent a record number of women to Congress.

“Republicans should be careful about bringing about anti-abortion legislation thinking it’s going to sail through (the General Assembly),” she said. “Women are ready to fight back.”

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