William Ligon, Donzella James and Jeff Graham

LGBTQ bills to watch as end of legislative session nears

The 2018 legislative session had a promising outlook: there was bipartisan support for a hate crimes bill in Georgia and last year’s anti-LGBTQ amendments to the overhauled state adoption code were removed before the bill passed.

But then the controversial statement was introduced as its own bill. Senate Bill 375, the “Keep Faith in Adoption and Foster Care Act” authored by Sen. William Ligon (R-Brunswick), passed the chamber on Feb. 23 and heads to the House this week.

SB 375 would “allow a child-placing agency to decline or accept a referral … and decline to perform services not referred under a contract … based on the child-placing agency’s sincerely held religious beliefs.” The bill adds that the state would be prohibited from “discriminating against or causing any adverse action” against an agency that refused to perform services based on its religious beliefs.

Ligon insists the bill will allow more agencies to open in Georgia, thus making it possible for more children to be adopted. But that may not be the outcome.

“In other states where similar legislation has been enacted, there have been no noticeable changes in the number of agencies,” said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality. “We know there are lots of prospective parents in the LGBT community. … We hope we can have a deeper, richer, more meaningful conversation about this when it reaches the House. Hopefully we will be able to convince the House to stop this very dangerous piece of legislation.”

Here’s a look at a few other bills affecting the LGBTQ community as Crossover Day arrives — the day by which a bill must receive approval from at least one chamber in order to pass this session. In rare occurrences, language from a bill that didn’t make it past Crossover Day can be attached to another bill that does.

No hate in Georgia

House Bill 660, introduced by Rep. Meagan Hanson (R-Brookhaven), is co-sponsored by openly LGBTQ Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates).

HB 660 aims “to provide for sentencing of defendants who commit certain crimes which target a victim or his or her property because of the defendant’s belief regarding the victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, mental disability or physical disability.” The bill will also provide for better training in reporting hate crimes and civil liability for these cases.

Hanson introduced HB 660 before the session began, but it has not yet left the House. It’s one of three bills dealing with hate crimes under debate this year.

“There are not a lot of substantial differences [between the three],” Graham said. “It certainly would be ideal that all of them get combined into one bill. Unfortunately with Crossover Day tomorrow, it does not look like any of those three bills will be moving to another chamber.”

Rep. Karen Bennett’s (D-Stone Mountain) House Bill 663 provides enhanced sentencing and addresses the juvenile code. HB 663 adds a new Georgia Code subsection that reads, “Any person who commits the offense of simple assault against an individual intentionally selected because of such individual’s race, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin or physical disability shall, upon conviction thereof, be punished as for a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature.” The same is put forth for those convicted of simple assault and battery. For aggravated assault, convicted individuals will be “punished by imprisonment for not less than three nor more than 20 years.” For aggravated battery, the punishment is between five and 20 years. Bennett’s bill also addresses punishment for hate crimes against a person’s property.

On the Senate side, Sen. Lester Jackson (D-Savannah) introduced Senate Bill 316, which is similar to Bennett’s in providing heavier sentences for those convicted of hate crimes. SB 316 was referred to committee in early January, but hasn’t moved since.

“We had a series of three hearings on those bills last week, and I think there was some strong testimony from the [Georgia Bureau of Investigation] director regarding the legislation and why it’s needed here in Georgia,” Graham said.

Protecting law enforcement?

Georgia Equality opposes House Bill 737, which aims to require court-ordered blood tests of individuals “for the protection of law enforcement officers who have a significant exposure to HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C.”

According to HB 737, if a police officer comes into contact with an individual’s blood or certain bodily fluids during arrest, that officer can request that the individual submit to a HIV or hepatitis test, the results of which would then be released to the officer. If the individual refuses, she may be ordered by the court to submit within 30 days, or face punishment.

“We have been opposed to that bill in its current form,” Graham said. “It does not actually accomplish its stated goal of protecting police officers or other public safety personnel from contracting HIV or viral hepatitis.”

HB 737 passed out of committee on Feb. 5 and will likely be referred to a study committee. Graham hopes the committee looks into educating law enforcement officers about post-exposure prophylaxis and hepatitis vaccines, as well as discussing HIV criminalization.

Redefining rape

Sen. Donzella James (D-Atlanta) aims to take gender out of the equation when it comes to sexual offenses. Senate Bill 145, which was referred to committee on Feb. 10, says “a person commits the offense of rape when he or she has carnal knowledge of a person forcibly and against his or her will; or a person who is less than 10 years of age.” It defines carnal knowledge as “any penetration of the genital or anal orifices by the penis, finger, mouth or other body organ or appendage or by a foreign object; any sexual act involving the genitalia of a person and the mouth, anus or genitalia of the victim; or any sexual act involving the mouth of a person and the anus or genitalia of a victim.”

“There’s some good intent in this bill, and we did show up at the hearing last week, and said that we are generally supportive of the overall concept,” Graham said. “We do think some of the specific language needs to be tweaked.”

For example, he said he’d rather see the sodomy statutes, which were declared unconstitutional in the 1990s, be removed instead of re-written. Graham also hopes to see prosecutors engaged in conversation about SB 145 to ensure the bill won’t add unintended roadblocks to make convictions more difficult.