In my eleven years of lobbying at the Georgia Capitol, this one stands out as one of the most consistently contentious sessions I have witnessed. While I certainly understand that there are always tense moments when it comes to supporting or opposing legislation related to moral and social issues, this year’s session seemed to be more contentious all the way through.
Most of the legislation that we as Georgia Baptists were involved in this year centered on matters related to: Religious Liberty, Sexual Abuse, Gambling, Alcohol and Marijuana. In addition to these subjects, it was also strange that, in an election year, there was seemingly no appetite for any kind of new pro-life legislation. There have been a number of prolife bills in the past two years, but none could get passed in both chambers.
Religious Liberty legislation has become the most difficult legislation to pass. Governor Deal has created an atmosphere that has made it virtually impossible to pass any thing that he thinks might affect his agenda to attract business to our state. He has made religious liberty a bad catch-phrase. Leadership and legislators do not want to touch it for fear of it not being signed by the Governor or of reprisals for pushing it.
Conservative activists and legislators agreed this year to holding back on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in order to pass First Amendment protection for faith-based adoption and foster care agencies. This legislation was originally amended to the House adoption overhaul bill last year (HB 159), but was not voted on in the Senate because the Governor and House Leadership did not approve of its addition to the bill.
Early in this year’s session, HB 159 passed both chambers with faith-based First Amendment protections removed. However, one element of faith-based support remained in the bill as amended by the Senate. A provision that allowed a power-of-attorney to be granted to individuals or nonprofit agencies for temporary custody of children did get passed. While we were thankful for many improvements in the legislation, we still had concerns about provisions made for private adoptions. (https://christianindex.org/getting-adoption-right-georgia/ )
After the faith-based protection was taken out of HB 159, the Senate then passed SB 375, the Keeping Faith in Adoption and Foster Care Act, sponsored by Sen. William Ligon, (https://christianindex.org/faith-based-adoption-bill-passed-senate/) but the House would not even take it up for a hearing. The excuse: The Governor has not said he will sign it! That was the reason RFRA was held back: The Governor wouldn’t sign it.
Even on the last day of session an attempt was made to amend another adoption and foster care bill from the House coming to the Senate. It was stopped by Lieutenant Governor Cagle because he said it was “non-germane” to the bill being amended. However, the word was that the amendment was not supported by the Governor’s floor leaders.
See what I am talking about? We simply must have a new Governor who will put our constitutional rights above the special business interests of the LGBTQ agenda. We also need legislators who will stand up and not be bullied into retreating from doing what they think is right in their chamber. We do have three 3 separate bodies who shoulder this responsibility.
One bright spot had to do with the passage of SB 339, The Campus Free Speech Act sponsored by Sen. William Ligon. (https://christianindex.org/faith-based-adoption-bill-passed-senate/ ) There have been a number of colleges that have been sued this year for restricting students’ free speech rights. This bill was gutted somewhat, retaining “free speech” zones, but maintaining that guest speakers on Georgia’s college campuses will not be heckled or penalized. One of the bill’s purposes is to keep people from interrupting students and guests invited to speak on campuses. The bill requires public colleges to create less restrictive policies for groups trying to get permits to speak.
Also, on a positive side was legislation like HB 732, sponsored by Rep. Deborah Silcox, that increases fines and penalties for pandering and solicitation for sex trafficking. These are the “middle men” who are out there drumming up business for pimps and johns. This legislation is needed to crack down on all who are a part of sexual exploitation of individuals for sex trafficking in our state. See GBC resolution on this issue.
A bill that caused a sizable amount of controversy had to do with HB 605, The Hidden Predator Act. This bill, sponsored by Rep. Jason Spencer, passed the House by a 170-0 vote. The bill basically allowed the statute of limitations to be extended to allow victims of child sex abuse to sue entities who had covered up child sexual abuse in the past. The bill was severely amended in the Senate. (https://christianindex.org/legislative-update-georgia-hidden-predator-act/ ) It was amended so much that there was very little legal remedy left for those whose statute of limitations had run out for criminal prosecution. This legislation was introduced in the context of the legal cases regarding the Boy Scouts, The Catholic Church and USA Gymnastics.
Georgia Baptists supported this bill because we felt that it struck a balance in allowing the victims to sue, and the rights of the entities to defend themselves. However, because of the severe amending done by the Senate, the House did not agree with their version. The Senate would not appoint a conference committee and the House would not agree to the changes and the bill, therefore, died. This is a sad outcome for these victims/survivors of child sexual abuse.
For four years Georgia Baptists have been opposing legislation for the expansion of gambling! This year, once again, we were able to keep any casinos, horse racing, and internet sports gambling (Daily Fantasy Sport) from being legalized! This was quite a tall order to do. During the last four years 40-60 lobbyists have been hired to secure pro-gambling legislation.
The primary focus this year was on House Bill 118, (sponsored by Rep tray Kelly) legislation that would legalize internet sports gambling known as Daily Fantasy Sports.( https://christianindex.org/stop-trojan-horse-daily-fantasy-sports/ ) The problem with this legislation was that it attempted to legalize a form of gambling that many believe violates existing Georgia law. Regardless of what the supporters of this legislation say, Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) is not a game of skill, but gambling!
What we need the state to do is to declare it “not legal” and stop it. Georgia has only one legal Gambling enterprise in the state: The Lottery. Any additional gambling has to be approved by the citizens in a statewide referendum that amends the state constitution. I believe that DFS believes that it must quickly get itself legalized as a “contest” before they could be outlawed. Simple. They want to declare that are a “contest” so the Georgia Attorney General could not potentially outlaw them.
The ability to stop the further expansion of this scar on our state would not be possible if it were not for Georgia Baptists contacting their legislators and asking them to say “NO” to gambling. Thank you for standing up and communicating that gambling plays havoc on our homes and businesses and leads to increased crime in our communities. We will not give up fighting.
Everyone knows the difficulty that alcohol brings to our communities and social environment. Georgia Baptists have been standing firm on stopping any further expansion of alcohol sales in our state. (https://christianindex.org/stopping-expansion-sunday-alcohol-sales/ ) We know that availability leads to increased sales. We know that increased sales precipitates increased consumption. And we know that when people consume more alcohol, it naturally increases the problems associated with alcohol. Therefore, we oppose all expansion of alcohol and that includes Sunday Sales.
This year, under SB 17, Sunday Sales of alcohol would begin at 11:00 AM rather than 12:30 PM as the current law allows. This is a great disappointment because the original push for Sunday Sales was done with the understanding that local governments would have to get permission to sell alcohol and that it would do so with respect to faith groups that do not believe in the consumption of alcohol. This was to be demonstrated by not allowing sales until after 12:30 PM, which was in relationship to the conclusion of typical church services.
This year, if the Governor signs the bill, local communities can begin sales at 11:00 AM by passing a ballot referendum. Because of our opposition to this bill, we were able to keep this from applying to liquor stores and grocery stores. However, we will have to continue this opposition next year.
Then lastly, there was legislation that was amended by the House that added PTSD and intractable pain as conditions treatable with 5% THC oil and passed by the Senate. As you may remember, Georgia Baptists take a neutral position on medical marijuana, but we do oppose cultivation and recreational use. (https://gabaptist.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Resolution-on-the-Dangers-of-Marijuana.pdf) The continued increase of medical marijuana continues to push the envelope toward cultivation and, eventually, recreational use. One has to bear in mind that the possession, transporting and cultivation of marijuana are violations of federal law. However, the Federal government has chosen a posture that, for the most part, looks the other way when it comes to prosecution.
The problem with adding more illnesses, like intractable pain, is that it leads towards recreational use. This means that our medical registry for THC use could skyrocket! It would grow, potentially, from around 4,000 to 40,000. Some have even called it “de facto recreation” use. Allowing the use of medical marijuana in these situations is going to be hard to control because a diagnosis is subjective. All you need is a recommendation from a doctor.
There is no doubt that the passage of House Bill 65, which would add PTSD and intractable pain to the list of conditions eligible for treatment by medical marijuana, and the creation of a study commission on in-state cultivation, will move us closer to recreational use, a model that is closer to Colorado and California. Do we really want that?
Well, these are just a few of the bills that we were monitoring during the ending of a 2 year legislative cycle. Tom Rush and I have been keeping watch over approximately 45 bills. It has been quite a challenge. I did not mention the fact that I testified alone 4 times, opposing hate crimes legislation that would have sought to create special classes of individuals, based on sexual orientation and gender identity. (https://christianindex.org/hate-crimes-legislation-popping-up-everywhere/ )This is why we must remain sober and vigilant in the coming years at the Georgia General assembly.
I close with a query that was put to one of my colleagues on the 40th and final day. Someone walked by and asked, “are the Christians or the lions winning?” It is sad to say that if we don’t stay engaged in the legislative process, as salt and light, the lions will have a bright future “under the gold dome.” Now is not the time to back down. God is holding us accountable for upholding righteousness standards and for speaking on behalf of those whom He calls us to protect!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless.
Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”