Good and bad news from the recent Georgia General Assembly

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It was a very busy 2017 legislative session in the Georgia General Assembly! Over the past few years our subjects of interest have been: Religious Liberty, Gambling, Marijuana, Abortion, and Alcohol. This year, once again, Religious Liberty and Gambling ended up topping the list. So, on those two topics I have some good news and some bad news!

First, The Good News!

Senator Marty Harbin, right, was instrumental in attempting to pass faith-based legislation during the most recent sessions, said Georgia Baptist public policy spokesman Mike Griffin. PUBLIC AFFAIRS/Special

As the Georgia General Assembly came to a close Thursday night, two major pushes to expand gambling had been stopped in their tracks! Casino gambling and internet sports gambling, through the Daily Fantasy Sports industry, had shown much promise as the legislative session progressed forward. But fervent prayer, grassroots activism, and aggressive lobbying by a number of social conservative organizations (Faith and Freedom Coalition, Concerned Woman for America, Citizen Impact, Georgia Conservatives in Action, and the Georgia Baptist Mission Board) were able to convince enough legislators that increased gambling is a bad bet in Georgia!

Midway through the legislative session casino legislation, introduced by Senator Brandon Beech and known as the “Destination Resorts Act,” began to hit some bumps in the road when support from members of the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities began to dwindle. Between the first and second hearing on casinos, Senator Beech pulled his bill from consideration because of concerns regarding his ability to have the votes necessary to pass the bill. Before and after the first hearing, contacts from concerned citizens poured into the offices of state senators.

Two weeks before the end of the session, the House version of the casino bill received its second hearing with substitute language. Again, because of the lack of momentum it died in committee and was not amended to any other legislation before the 40th day! A big thanks goes to Rep. Wes Cantrell who helped fuel some of opposition in the House when he wrote an article early in the legislative session exposing the dangers of allowing casino gambling in Georgia

Immediately following the stall of the casino legislation in the Senate, Daily Fantasy Sports legislation picked up momentum in the House! Representative Trey Kelly introduced what was called the “Fantasy Contests Act.” This received a hearing in the House Ways and Means Committee and quickly passed the House and moved to the Senate, where it was sponsored by Sen. Renee Unterman. The problem with this bill is that it is gambling – plain and simple!

Conservative leaders and legislators met constantly in standing up for the voices of Georgia Baptists. Starting with Georgia Baptist Public Affairs representative Mike Griffin, foreground, and going clockwise: Virginia Gallaway, Tom Rush, Jane Robbins, Corey Lawrence, Paul Smith, Tanya Ditty, and Dave Baker. PUBLIC AFFAIRS/Special

The challenge in defeating this legislation was convincing the legislators that Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) was not like the year-long Fantasy League. DFS is not a game of skill, like a golf tournament or a bass tournament, but for all practical purposes it is pari-mutuel betting. It is the same as horse racing. You are just picking players instead of horses.

The second challenge was getting legislators to see that since it is gambling, it is unconstitutional. The only legalized gambling in Georgia is through the lottery. Therefore, DFS is being played illegally in our state without a constitutional amendment!

Thankfully, even though this bill was passed on to the Senate floor for a vote, it never received a vote! Your contact with your senator and with Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle helped stop this bill in its tracks, too! There simply was not enough votes on the floor of the Senate to bring it up for a vote!

Mike Griffin, left, says the presence in Atlanta of Georgia Baptists like John Yarbrough, center, who serves as director of Alumni Relations and Public Policy at Truett McConnell University, and Senator Bruce Thompson, right, a member of Cartersville First Baptist, are crucial in fighting for faith-based legislation. Yarbrough also serves as the chairman of the Public Affairs Committee. PUBLIC AFFAIRS/Special

Now let me also say a big “thank you” to Sen. Bruce Thompson, who on a regular basis went to the floor of the Senate and warned its members of the dangers of casino gambling and internet sports gambling through DFS! His faithfulness to stand up made a big difference!

Now, for the Bad News!

Despite the noble efforts of Sen. Marty Harbin, we did not get any additional religious freedom protection for Georgians. As you may recall from last year, the Georgia legislature passed a religious freedom bill, only to have it vetoed by Governor Deal.

This year, Sen. Harbin, around the midpoint of the legislative session, submitted SB 233 with the same subject matter. What made Senator Harbin’s proposed legislation different from last year’s bill is it only addressed the RFRA portion, putting into law a state version of what Governor Deal voted for when he was a congressman in 1993. This proposed legislation was very simple – it merely provided that the RFRA language in the federal code also apply to religious liberty questions arising under Georgia law. The bill was assigned by Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle to the Senate Rules committee and was never heard of afterward.

Now, with SB 233 being held up in committee, and with only two days left in the Georgia legislative session, Senator Marty Harbin made a bold and courageous move by amending HB 257 in the senate, to include a 1993 version of the federal “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” to be applied at the local government level.

What did this mean? Senator Harbin’s amendment was simply a “local RFRA,” in which local governments must provide citizens the same religious freedom protections as federal inmates in Georgia and military personnel located on federal military installations in Georgia. Below, Senator Josh McKoon and I explain the amendment.

Unfortunately, SB 257 was tabled in the Senate on Tuesday night, the 39th legislative day. With only one day left in the session, there was hope the bill would be taken off the table and senators allowed to vote. Sad to say, this did not happen. Bills in the Senate were left to the discretion of Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle, and he chose not to bring it up for a vote.

The Takeaway from this Year’s Session

Tom Rush, left, serves as an assistant alongside Mike Griffin with the Public Affairs department of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. PUBLIC AFFAIRS/Special

Here is the takeaway: It’s never wrong to do the “right thing”! And it is never too late to do the “right thing”! It was the “right thing” for Georgia Baptists to oppose the expansion of gambling in our beloved state, with all of its harmful effects on the family and society. And it was not too late for Senator Marty Harbin to do the right thing by even amending a RFRA on to another piece of legislation during the last days of the legislative session.

I promise you, as your Public Affairs representative, we won’t let you or our Lord down when it comes to standing up for the right thing or against the wrong thing under the Gold Dome! Tom Rush, Public Affairs assistant, and I see it as blessing and honor to represent you at the Capitol. 

God bless all of you for your support and prayers during the past legislative session! The Lord was our strength and shield!

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