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Editorial: Ga. lawmakers take 2 steps forward, 2 back
Despite worthwhile moves by legislators, a pair of notions that ended in vetoes wont go away
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Rep. David Dreyer, D-Atlanta, speaks in opposition to HB 37 during a legislative session of the Georgia General Assembly on Wednesday in Atlanta. Chairman of the Appropriations: Higher Education Committee, Earl Ehrhart, R - Powder Springs, presented HB 37, under which private colleges and universities in Georgia could lose state funding if they declare themselves “sanctuary campuses.” House Bill 37 would punish those schools that do not comply with state and federal immigration law. The bill passed and now goes to the Senate. - photo by Bob Andres

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As the Georgia General Assembly session begins its turn toward the home stretch this week, we’re seeing the usual mix of good bills but also some bad ideas popping back up like mushrooms after a rainstorm.

On the plus side in the last week, the state Senate passed the “Back the Badge Act” that provides greater protection for public safety officers. The bill, backed by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, calls for harsher penalties for violent acts committed against police officers, fire fighters, EMTs and even traffic safety workers who are performing their duties.

Despite concerns by some lawmakers over some aspects of the bill, it’s a positive step toward protecting those who protect the rest of us, and worth passage in the House.

Another positive step would lead to stricter guidelines in treating opioid addiction. A Senate bill that passed 50-2 lays out new regulations for narcotic treatment programs that use drugs such as methadone to treat opioid addicts. The rash of such addictions have led to the opening of numerous clinics that don’t always meet proper standards. This bill would ensure the clinics in operation are qualified and capable of treatment.

But on the down side, two ideas that died on the vine last year with Gov. Nathan Deal’s veto are back for a second round, as expected.

One would allow students to carry guns in certain areas on state college and university campuses. Deal vetoed last year’s version over objections from law enforcement and college leaders who believe arming students would hamper, not increase, campus safety. This year’s bill adds some additional areas where weapons would not be allowed, such as student housing and sports arenas.

Yet the same problem is evident in this plan: If you allow more people to carry firearms and a shooter is loose on campus, law officers can’t easily determine who the bad guy is. Plus the risk of everyday disputes fueled by alcohol and emotion turning onto tragedy is too great.

Advocates believe having more firearms boosts individual safety, but guns only make us safer when they’re in the right hands. There’s no way to guarantee that when anyone with a license can arm themselves. It’s best to leave law enforcement to the professionals and not turn campuses into shooting galleries.

Then there is the religious liberty bill, back again after last year’s Deal veto. The latest version would mimic the national Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which requires that governments being sued in such a dispute prove a law meets a “compelling” interest and doesn’t substantially restrict someone’s ability to practice their religion.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the law didn’t apply to states, prompting a wave of state-level legislation in recent years. At least five states this year are considering measures to parrot that law. While it may seem innocent enough on its surface, it is viewed by many as a free pass to discriminate against the LGBT community, specifically over legalized same-sex marriage.

Deal and most state leaders aren’t on board, fearing the kind of backlash suffered by Indiana and North Carolina. Those states passed religious freedom laws and immediately suffered boycotts from businesses, sporting leagues and entertainers concerned over the message of intolerance it implies.

For that reason, chambers of commerce and business interests are dead-set against such a bill and the damage it could cause.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce and Metro Atlanta Chamber issued a joint statement to that effect, calling the legislation “already a constitutional right, unnecessary and would distract from our strong performance in creating new jobs in our state.” It also raised concerns over “plentiful data other states have suffered and will continue to suffer long-term economic harm for enacting a law that many see as discriminatory.”

Unlike lawmakers seeking to appeal to a segment of their constituency, Deal doesn’t face re-election and is free to apply a practical approach to this law. He said last week it isn’t part of his agenda, and that he has “no desire or appetite to entertain that legislation.”

He’s wise to stand firm. The RFRA push is largely symbolic, an attempt to allow some businesses and organizations to refuse to take part in same-sex marriages, a right they already have under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It’s a straw man scenario not likely to occur in the real world, where same-sex couples are more apt to seek vendors and venues friendly to their unions.

The Constitution protects the right to worship and needs no further amplification from state legislatures. Passing such a law is merely a nod to those who feel their faith is threatened, yet is not worth the negative reaction and economic havoc the state would endure.

Georgia has worked hard to create a reputation as a state welcoming to all people and a positive place to do business. Any effort that undermines that image puts our state in a negative light that could keep it from moving forward.

Georgians are free to practice their own individual love of God and guns, rights protected by the Constitution and the first two amendments in the Bill of Rights. State lawmakers who continue to pick away at both issues for political gain aren’t increasing anyone’s safety or freedom. 

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