Georgia Senate Passes Bipartisan Hate Crimes Bill

Lawyer Daniel Brown holds a poster calling on Georgia lawmakers to pass a state hate crimes law on Thursday in Atlanta.

Jeff Amy / Associated Press

Updated Tuesday at 4:49 p.m.

The Georgia General Assembly has passed a hate crimes bill amid mounting public pressure on state lawmakers following the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery. It was passed after legislators made a deal to remove language protecting police.

Georgia is one of four states in the country without a hate crimes statute after a previous version was struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2004 for being too vague.

The bill, H.B. 426, narrowly passed the House last March but remained stalled in a Senate committee for more than a year until public outcry pushed it to the forefront.

Some Republican state senators attempted late last week to add first responders as a protected class in the bill.

After strong pushback from Democrats and groups, including the ACLU of Georgia, senators transferred that language into a separate measure, H.B. 838, which also passed both houses Tuesday. It adds “bias-motivated intimidation” against someone because of their status as a first responder into the criminal code.

Now the hate crimes bill only needs Governor Brian Kemp’s signature to become law. A spokesman for Kemp said the governor intends to sign it, “pending legal review.”

State Senator Bill Cowsert, a Republican who was among those seeking to add language protecting police, introduced the bill on the Senate floor:

“And we say we want to make the statement that that’s not us,” he said of hate crimes. “We don’t stand for that. We don’t tolerate that. We will no longer stand idly by silently because to do so is to implicitly support it.”

Recent court proceedings revealed Travis McMichael, who has been arrested in the shooting of Arbery, allegedly used a racial slur as Arbery lay dying.

“This has been a tremendous lift that has taken place. We, many times, talk about bipartisan legislation. This is it. This is the definition of legislators working together with the leadership,” Democratic State Senator Harold Jones said of the final version of the bill on the Senate floor.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who last week introduced his own version of a hate crimes bill, applauded Jones and Cowsert for working together on the compromise.

The bill protects people from crimes intentionally committed because of certain identities, including race, gender, sexual orientation or disability. It also adds a reporting requirement for law enforcement, to help the state document and track hate crimes.

“Racism, bigotry, hatred still exists. Let’s do something in the state of Georgia to try to curb that,” said Democratic state Senator Donzella James during the debate.

“I implore to you, if you have any question if it needs to exist, it definitely needs to exist,” said Republican state Senator Renee Unterman of the bill, outlining her family’s experience with anti-Semitism.

David Ralston, Republican speaker of the Georgia House, called it a “historic” day after the House officially approved the final version of the bill.

“Today, we have said that we will not be defined by a senseless act of evil and by the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, but that our Georgia is better than this,” he said.

Democratic Party of Georgia Chairwoman Nikema Williams said, in a statement, that there was more to be done.

“This is only the first step in seeking justice and accountability for vulnerable Georgians,” she said. “When Georgia Democrats take back the House this fall, we will demand more from our leaders, and keep working for a justice system that truly protects every person in our state.”

For a deeper exploration of Ahmaud Arbery’s story, listen to WABE’s podcast, “Buried Truths.” Hosted by journalist, professor, and Pulitzer-prize-winning author Hank Klibanoff, season three of “Buried Truths” explores the Arbery murder and its direct ties to racially motivated murders of the past in Georgia.