This year's legislative session began slow but ended very busy because it was the first year of a two-year legislative cycle. This was the first year of the Governor’s second term and it was also the first year of a new Lieutenant Governor and a new Speaker of the House.
Georgia Baptists monitored around 12 legislative subjects with 27 bills. Once again, we were able to support more legislation than we opposed. Of the 12 legislative subjects that we dealt with, we were in favor of moving legislation in 10 of those areas.
Among the 27 bills that we were monitoring, we were in support of 16 of those bills and in opposition to 11 of them. See this Public Affairs blog post for more details.
I want to give you a review of some of the top pieces of legislation related to the four main subject headings I gave in the Christian Index at the beginning of the session.
Further Abortion Restrictions
As many of you know, we are still waiting on the Georgia Supreme Court to make a final ruling on the heartbeat law. We are very thankful that the law is still being applied while we wait. Because of the pending court case, legislation regarding any further restrictions has been held back this year at the state capitol.
The Abortion Pill
There is another pending court decision that deals with the use of abortion pills that we are waiting on. A lawsuit has been filed in Federal Court in Texas that could restrict the abortion pill nationwide. We have already attempted to limit its use through legislation over the past two years. Depending on the court findings, we will hopefully be restricting it here in our state.
One of the positive things we saw on pro-life legislation is a bill that passed that deals with maternity care from a welfare standpoint. Rep. Soo Hung authored HB 129 to temporarily expand Medicaid assistance for needy families to pregnant women who meet the eligibility criteria. This legislation is crucial to help needy mothers during their pregnancy. It passed the House and the Senate and is going to the Governor's desk to be signed into law.
It is important in a post-Roe era that abortion never be seen as viable. While we certainly need to have further restrictions on abortion, the church needs to be focused as much on the care for moms and babies. This is one of the reasons why our focus on pre- and post-natal care through Mission Georgia is so very important!
We are thankful that Sen. Ed Setzler, along with more than 20 other senators, introduced SB 180, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), this year. This legislation is very simple – it merely provides that the RFRA protections from federal law will also apply to religious-liberty questions arising under Georgia law.
The enactment of SB 180 will bring Georgia into line with 34 other states that have taken action to restore a full level of legal protection for people of faith. This short video explains RFRA.
Under current federal RFRA law, a claim brought under the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment is treated as a full constitutional right that must be analyzed using the “strict scrutiny” legal standard.
This legal standard simply means that the government may not substantially impact a citizen’s free exercise of their religious faith unless it demonstrates a truly “compelling interest” and that in doing so the government agency uses the “least restrictive means” to achieve its compelling interest.
This legislation has been assigned to the Judiciary Committee but did not have a hearing before the 28th day. Therefore, it is still available for next year.
It is amazing at the amount of gambling legislation that has been introduced this year. If you include both the House and Senate chambers there were at least 8 bills! I will highlight five of them.
First, Sen. Billy Hickman introduced SB 57 for the purpose of legalizing sports betting and horse racing through the Georgia Lottery. This legislation did not require a constitutional amendment, but only a majority vote in the Senate to pass. It was soundly defeated by a vote of 37 against and 19 in favor.
Secondly, Sen. Bill Cowsert introduced two bills, SR 140 and SB 172, a constitutional amendment and enabling legislation to show how the law would be managed and where the tax revenue will be applied.
The good news is that SR 140 was voted on and failed to get a constitutional majority. It had 30 votes for and 26 voted against. 38 votes were needed to pass a constitutional amendment. SB 172 was not brought up for a vote.
Thirdly, Rep. Marcus Weidower introduced HB 380 for the purpose of adding sports betting to the State Lottery without a constitutional amendment. It had been assigned to the House Higher Education Committee, had two hearings and was passed out to the Rules Committee on the 28th day to go on to floor for a vote but was never called up. It is still available next year.
Fourthly, it is amazing that anyone in Senate Leadership would still be advocating for any sports betting legislation when two bills already dealing with sports betting had been overwhelmingly defeated on the Senate floor. This just shows how willing the legislature is at times to push what it wants.
The Georgia Senate Committee on Economic Development and Tourism decided to replace House Bill 237, sponsored by Rep. Leesa Hagan, which would establish the Southeast Georgia Soap Box Derby as the official soap box derby of the State of Georgia with language that made it a sports betting bill. See my Public Affairs Ministry Facebook video and Christian Index article.
Then, the Senate Rules Committee passed it to be put onto the Senate calendar for a floor vote either on the 39th or 40th day. See my Public Affairs Ministry Facebook video.
Thankfully, because there was not enough support from both Republicans and Democrats, the bill failed to even come up for a vote on the last two days of the legislative session!
It is almost unbelievable that since so many legislators have claimed that the majority of people in the state of Georgia want sports betting, that they would attempt what could be labeled as a “sneak attack” to get it passed.
However, the latest statewide poll done in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has shown that the interest in sports betting has gone down. It was as high as 57% in 2020 and now is as low as 49% in 2023.
Coin Operated Amusement Machines (COAMs)
This year again, both the House and the Senate sought to bring legislation that would help better regulate this dangerous industry. HB 353, sponsored by Rep. Alan Powell, and SB 174, sponsored by Sen. Clint Dixon, are two examples of legislation that would allow gift cards to be awarded as winnings for these machines.
While we support tighter regulations on COAM Class B machines, we do not support creating incentives to encourage more people to play them. Although these machines are technically not classified as gambling, they are often viewed as such and can be addictive and destructive to those who use them.
Thankfully, only one of the bills got a hearing, SB 174, and it was passed out to the Rules Committee to be considered for floor vote. As it went to the floor, it was amended to remove the gift cards, then it was voted back the House but no vote was taken. Therefore, it failed this year but, it is still available for next year.
Child Protection Policy
One of the four top priorities of Georgia Baptists is legislation concerning child protection policies. Children are one of the most vulnerable groups of people in our nation. We're living in a day when children are suffering the most from societal ills that are facing our culture.
Protecting Minors from Gender Dysphoria Surgeries and Medical Treatments
One of the major pieces of legislation this year at the Capitol was SB 140, authored by Sen. Carden Summers. This legislation prohibited certain surgical procedures and certain medical treatments, including hormone replacement therapies and surgeries that have irreversible effects for gender dysphoria in minors. We were disappointed that it did not include prohibiting puberty blockers.
Georgia Baptist supports the intention of the bill (see GBC Resolution), but we had concerns about flaws in the wording. We initially opposed it on the Senate floor, but then supported the amendment going forward in the House. The bill was amended to add civil liability. This was very important to add needed accountability. Therefore, we did support it as it moved forward.
The bill was eventually passed by the House as amended and has been sent to the Senate for an agreement. The Senate agreed and it was sent to the Governor’s desk. The Governor signed it into law before the close of the legislative session.
Child Obscenity Protection
First, there was the Student Technology Protection Act, HB 338, by Rep. Chris Erwin. This was designed to include methods for promoting the safe and appropriate use of technology devices used in education programs. “Technology protection measure” means a technology that inspects and analyzes unencrypted internet traffic for malware and that blocks or filters electronic access to obscene materials, child pornography, or material that is harmful to minors.
This bill passed out of the House and has been sent to the Senate Education and Youth Committee for a hearing and passed out of committee to the Rules Committee. It was placed on the calendar for consideration but was never voted on. It is still available for next year.
Second, there is the Removal of Library Exemption for Obscene Material to Minors legislation, SB 154. This was authored by Sen. Greg Dolezal and it aims to remove public school libraries from exemptions regarding laws regulating access to obscene materials by minors.
This bill was sent to the Education and Youth Committee but did not have a hearing before crossover day (28th). It is still available for next year.
As you can see there was a lot of legislation to observe this year. The list before you contains only some of the 27 bills we were trying to keep up with during this year’s legislative session. There will be more legislation as we go into the 2024 legislative session.
Thank you so much for all of your prayers and support as we work on public policy.
Mike Griffin is the Public Affairs Representative of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board.
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