Capitol Recap: ‘Religious liberty’ returns as hot topic for Georgia legislators

State Sen. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, points to a chart about religious freedoms in Georgia during a press conference promoting his "religious liberty" proposal, Senate Bill 180. (Natrice Miller/



State Sen. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, points to a chart about religious freedoms in Georgia during a press conference promoting his "religious liberty" proposal, Senate Bill 180. (Natrice Miller/

New bill closely matches federal statute

“Religious liberty,” the focus of intense debate in earlier sessions of the General Assembly, returned this past week in a Senate bill that would limit the state government’s ability to pass or enforce laws that conflict with the beliefs of people of faith.

The topic has often revealed a divide within the state’s Republican Party between social conservatives and those mostly interested in promoting business interests. Supporters have said such legislation would add a layer of protection for religious followers. Critics, however, say that religious liberty bills could allow discrimination against groups such as lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.

That divide was perhaps most pronounced in 2016, when Republican Gov. Nathan Deal — facing threats of boycotts from companies such as Apple, Time Warner and the Walt Disney Co. — vetoed a religious liberty bill that he said he viewed as discriminatory. Republican activists in at least one of the state’s congressional districts responded with a censure of the governor.

This new legislation, Senate Bill 180, has a better chance of passing, though.

It apparently meets criteria that Brian Kemp set when he first ran for governor in 2018, when he pledged that any religious liberty measure he signed into law must be a “mirror image” of the federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act that President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1993.

SB 180, introduced by state Sen. Ed Setzler, closely resembles the federal law.

Setzler, who previously sponsored Georgia’s anti-abortion law, said “every Georgian should be free to worship and exercise their faith without unfair federal, state or local government intrusion.”

He added: “We cant ignore this any longer. It’s time to finally deal with this once and for all.”

Critics of the legislation fear it could empower adoption agencies and businesses who refuse to serve gay couples. Georgia doesn’t have a law protecting people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation.

“While we can all agree that freedom of religion is a cornerstone of our beliefs, it is imperative that in an effort to protect religion that we do not create a license to discriminate,” said Jeff Graham of Georgia Equality, a gay rights organization.

Backers wager that sports betting could have easier path this year in Legislature

Too late for this year’s Super Bowl, a bill was introduced that would legalize the billions of dollars of sports betting that is apparently already happening in Georgia.

The measure itself — House Bill 380, filed by state Rep. Marcus Wiedower, R-Watkinsville — relies on a big bet: that it won’t require an amendment to the state’s constitution.

HB 380 would grant up to 16 licenses to companies willing to pay a $100,000 application fee and an annual license fee of $1 million for a piece of the action. They would also pay a 15% tax to the state on their adjusted gross income.

That’s not a bad wager if you believe sports betting’s backers, who say Georgians illegally bet nearly $5 billion a year on sports.

What would be the state’s cut under HB 380? Supporters’ estimates run from $30 million to $100 million in annual revenue. Critics say those numbers are exaggerated.

How that that money would be spent has been among the issues that have blocked sports betting bills in the past.

Wiedower’s bill would dedicate that money for educational programs, such as the HOPE scholarship and pre-kindergarten classes, the same place lottery proceeds go.

That part about the lottery is key.

Former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Harold D. Melton recently wrote a memo that argued a constitutional amendment is not required to legalize online sports betting because it should be considered an extension of the state lottery (The same would not hold for casinos or horse racing in Melton’s opinion).

The memo was requested by the Metro Atlanta Chamber, which supports sports betting legislation.

Amending the state constitution has been the big barrier to gambling legislation in the past. It’s a task that requires approval by two-thirds of the lawmakers in each of the General Assembly’s chambers, followed by the support of a majority of voters.

Republicans are divided when it comes to gambling, so if a constitutional amendment were needed in this case, Wiedower couldn’t count on all his GOP brethren to back HB 380. Even if they did, they still don’t hold a two-thirds majority in each chamber.

That would give Democrats a rare bargaining chip. And they want funding for a needs-based college scholarship, something that killed a similar bill last year in the House Rules Committee.

But if Melton’s right, that chip isn’t worth as much.

Maybe Wiedower doesn’t need any Democrats to get the simple majority in each chamber required for passage. For certain, he wouldn’t need as many.

But even if Melton is right — and it should be noted that other high-power legal types disagree — passing sports betting, like an all-night poker game, could become an endurance test.

Legislation introduced this past week would require Georgia landlords to provide rental homes “fit for human habitation.” Speaker Jon Burns drew a line connecting House Bill 404 to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Dangerous Dwellings” that found that Georgia’s lack of tenant protections and basic standards allow dangerous apartment complexes to flourish in metro Atlanta. The investigation tied these complexes to at least 281 homicides and 20,000 serious crimes in Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties over five years. (Arvin Temkar /


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Bill seeks protections for tenants

It doesn’t seem like that high a bar, but legislation introduced this past week would require Georgia landlords to provide rental homes “fit for human habitation.”

Georgia is one of three states that do not specify what conditions make a home habitable. It’s also one of eight states where tenants are not allowed to withhold rent, no matter how bad the living conditions.

Supporters of the legislation, House Bill 404, include Speaker Jon Burns, who credited The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Dangerous Dwellings” series as an inspiration for the measure.

The 18-month investigation found that Georgia’s lack of tenant protections and basic standards allow dangerous apartment complexes to flourish in metro Atlanta.

Out-of-town investors have bought dilapidated apartments, boosted rents and then flipped them for millions of dollars in gains. Meanwhile, residents are living with mold, sewage backups, gunfire, chronic apartment fires and other hazards.

The investigation tied these complexes to at least 281 homicides and 20,000 serious crimes in Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties over five years.

But Burns said the problems are not limited to the metro area. Unsafe housing, he said, is a statewide problem.

“There needs to be some commonsense regulations put in place that allow everyone in the state to be safe at home,” he said.

Too much regulation, however, would be detrimental, said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton.

“You start layering in a bunch of regulation and then rent rates will not decrease,” Carpenter said.

The bill offers protections for both tenants and landlords.

Landlords would have to give tenants who are late on rent three days to make payment before an eviction is filed in court.

They would also be barred from turning off air conditioning to delinquent tenants before evictions are complete. (State law already prevents them from cutting off heat, light or water.)

Security deposits would be capped at three times the amount of monthly rent.

But landlords also would have the power to speed up the eviction process for tenants charged or convicted with certain serious crimes or who have committed a crime that threatens the health and safety of others on the property.

Efforts to strengthen tenant protections have not fared well in the past in the General Assembly.

HB 404, however, has strong support in addition to Burns, including House Majority Leader Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, and House Public Health Chair Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta.

An AJC poll in January showed about 90% of respondents said the state should create laws that set minimum living standards for rental properties.

Legislation targets discussions of sex, gender in classroom

Georgia Republicans proposed new prohibitions on classroom discussions about sex and gender, following along the lines of legislation last year limiting talk in schools about race.

Senate Bill 88 would prohibit teachers and others overseeing children under 16 from providing sex education without parental consent, a major shift for schools that must by law offer sex ed. Consent would also be required before discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity “other than the child’s biological sex.”

The bill would apply equally to public and private schools and in many cases to other places that oversee children, such as camps. Nonprofit organizations could lose their tax-exempt status, and public schools could see funding withheld.

SB 88′s sponsor, state Sen. Carden Summers, R-Cordele, said the legislation would require that parents be told what their children are learning, although he said he’s working on an amendment in cases of suspected abuse at home.

“We want to protect parents, we want to protect the teachers, we want to protect anybody — campers, church, wherever,” he said during a Senate Education and Youth Committee hearing. “This is simply a bill that gives some protections and allows people in charge to know what is being taught to their children and the curriculums that they’re dealing with.”

Tracey Nance, a former Georgia Teacher of the Year, said SB 88 would have a chilling effect on speech, not unlike the state’s “divisive concepts” law passed last year concerning how race and other culture flashpoints are taught.

Study: An early 2024 primary could be big for Georgia’s economy

An Emory University finance professor predicts hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of new jobs for Georgia if it moves its presidential primary to an earlier date on next year’s nomination calendar.

Democrats are pushing to make Georgia the fourth state to vote next year in the primary process. Thomas More Smith took a look at the implications for the state in an 11-page report and sees big positives.

“There’s a reason why so many states want to be in the first handful of primary votes. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be fighting for it so hard,” Smith said. “There’s a sizable financial benefit.”

Smith based his analysis on a model that projects nearly a dozen contenders on next year’s GOP ballot, with President Joe Biden facing no serious primary opposition on the Democratic side.

With an earlier date on the schedule, Georgia could generate an economic impact of roughly $220 million in spending from campaigns, national parties and outside groups in the months leading up to the primary, according to the analysis. It would also contribute to 2,200 new jobs.

Smith sees the potential for even bigger benefits further down the line in a race featuring competitive primaries for both major parties. In a wide-open 2028 contest, the economic impact could reach as high as $375 million and add more than 4,000 jobs.

So far, however, it’s been an uphill battle to shift Georgia’s primary date, at least for 2024.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has the sole authority to set the primary date, and he opposes any changes that require two separate presidential primaries in 2024 or risk the state’s delegates to either party’s convention.

National Republicans have already agreed to their lineup without Georgia near the front of the line, and jumping the ranks would cost the state GOP delegates.

But Raffensperger told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he favors an early primary in 2028.

Political expedience

  • Proposed tax rebate moves ahead: Gov. Brian Kemp’s plan to send the state’s taxpayers $1 billion in rebates started advancing through the legislative process this past week. The plan calls for the money, part of the state’s $6.6 billion surplus, to go out in the spring, with single-filing Georgians receiving $250 and couples who file jointly to get $500. People who don’t owe state income taxes — such as seniors living on pensions and/or Social Security — won’t receive the rebates.
  • Record year for trade: For the second year in a row, Georgia set a high for international trade in 2022, exceeding $196 billion. That was up 18% over the previous year. Imports form the biggest share, but the state also saw an 11% increase for exports, totaling a record $47 billion. Aerospace products, with Lockheed Martin and Gulfstream leading the way, were the state’s top export, soaring to $9.2 billion. Agricultural and forestry exports grew 21% last year to nearly $5.8 billion. Georgia ranks seventh nationally in the value of international trade. Its leading trading partner in 2022 was China, at $28.9 billion.
  • Senate backs Thomas statue: The Republican-led state Senate approved a plan to place a statue of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas inside the Georgia Capitol or on its grounds. Thomas, a native of Pin Point on the Georgia coast, was nominated to the court in 1991 as its second Black justice. He’s now the longest-serving justice. Private donations would pay for the statue. Democrats opposed the measure, citing Thomas’ rulings on issues involving civil rights and abortion, as well as allegations that his wife supported then-President Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election.
  • Resolution honoring Loeffler, group wins on split vote: Senate Republicans approved Senate Resolution 65, a commendation of “the work and achievements” of former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Greater Georgia Action Inc. Loeffler founded Greater Georgia to register Republican voters. Speaking for opposing Democrats, Sen. Elena Parent of Atlanta said it’s one thing to honor Loeffler for her public service but another to honor partisan political activity. Senate President Pro Tem John Kennedy, R-Macon, responded that the measure honors Loeffler and said Greater Georgia has registered voters from across the political spectrum. No similar resolution has been passed commending the work of Fair Fight, the voting group founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams.
  • Nguyen gets a new job: Former Democratic state Rep. Bee Nguyen, who lost in her bid to unseat Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, is joining the staff of U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock. Nguyen will serve as Warnock’s next state director. In that capacity, she will act as both an adviser to Warnock and manager of his state office in Atlanta.

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