FILE - Georgia Sen. Renee Unterman

Georgia Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford

(The Center Square) – In a step toward historic change in the state, the Georgia Assembly approved a hate crime bill Tuesday.

After two hours of discussion, which turned tearful at times, the Senate voted, 47-6, in favor of House Bill 426. The measure later passed the House by a 127-38 vote.

The bill's passage was met with applause in the Senate. Before the Senate vote, some senators recalled facing discrimination in Georgia.

Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, said she has been threatened and harassed because of her Jewish faith.

As Loganville mayor in the 1980s, Unterman said the Ku Klux Klan camped out on her street every weekend and a hate group's newspaper was delivered to her doorstep regularly.

"It became known that they would be there as a type of intimidation," she said. 

Unterman choked back tears as she recounted receiving a letter signed in blood, threatening to kidnap her then-5-year-old son.

Sen. Donzella James, D-Atlanta, said she once was called the N-word in front of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, known for being the pastoral home of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

If the bill becomes law, Georgia will join 46 states other states that have passed legislation to criminalize acts motivated by bias.

HB 426 would enhance sentencing for crimes that target victims based on race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability. 

Defendants who are found guilty would have to pay a $5,000 fine. Those convicted of a misdemeanor could face six months to a year in prison, and felony offenses would result in a minimum of two years in prison. 

In 2004, the Georgia Supreme Court struck down a hate crime law enacted in 2000 because the language was too vague. It did not specify what actions would be penalized, according to the court.

Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, who opposed HB 426, said he was concerned about a provision in the bill that would require law enforcement officers to create a Bias Crime Report with details about incidents even if they didn't end in an arrest. He said it could criminalize pastors based on their religious views about homosexuality.

"They're gonna get their name inscribed in a database with a lot of people that they don't want to be associated with," said Heath, who also became emotional.

The House originally approved the measure in March 2019, and it had been sitting in the Senate ever since. It was bought to the forefront after the high profile death of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man killed in south Georgia during an altercation in February, where the suspect used a racial slur.

The debate over the final vote heated up on the House floor Tuesday.

Rep. Vernon Jones, D-Lithonia, said the bill excludes freedom of speech and political affiliation protections.

Jones said he received threats for backing President Donald Trump for re-election. He proposed adding an amendment to the bill that would include the provision.

Rep. El-Mahdi Holly, D-Stockbridge, told Jones his response stirs the focus away from victims of hate crimes who were killed.

"In light of the deaths of people who were not able to be here, maybe this is not the time to compare your tragedy," Holly said. "Because you're not their martyr."

The General Assembly on Tuesday also passed House Bill 838, which protects first responders, including police and corrections officers, from hate crimes, establishes new standards for when a law enforcement officer is under investigation and allows officers to seek civil damages if they are wrongfully accused.

Both bills must be signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp.

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for three years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.