Sen. David Lucas and Sen. Renee Unterman spoke passionately about changes to the hate crimes bill.
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Sen. David Lucas and Sen. Renee Unterman spoke passionately about changes to the hate crimes bill.

While neither chamber had a hate crimes bill on their calendars for a rare Saturday session, two Senators took to the floor to talk passionately about the legislation, sparring over last-minute changes that protect police and other first responders.

"I am the only Jewish person in this room,"  said Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford. "Who wants a hate crimes bill more than me? (If so) I don't know who you are." 

Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, shot back that lawmakers were being tone deaf over recent protests that have swept the nation and Georgia calling for social justice and police reform. Protecting police in the bill, he said, was unacceptable.

"I will never vote for it," Lucas said.

Both senators referred to late Friday afternoon changes to House Bill 426 that could jeopardize support from Democrats because of an amendment that includes first responders, such as police officers, firefighters, and EMS crews, as a protected class alongside categories such as race, gender, and religion.

House Bill 426 is the hate crimes bill passed by the House in March of 2019 and stalled in the Senate until a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

During last year's House vote, the legislation enjoyed bipartisan support, including from sponsors Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Republican from Dacula, and Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Democrat from Columbus.

Georgia is one of only four states without a hate crimes law. The legislation would place stiffer penalties on crimes involving race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, and mental and physical disabilities.

The protests worldwide on racial injustices has put pressure on lawmakers to pass legislation that focuses on bias-based violence.

The Glynn County killing of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man, by two white men, put Georgia in the spotlight. Arbery's death sparked weeks of protests that ignited further with the police-related deaths of George Floyd in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky.

Tensions erupted again this week in Atlanta after the fatal police shooting of Rayshard Brooks who was gunned down in a Wendy's parking lot after a scuffle with officers. Demonstrators descended on the Capitol calling for change.

"To me, it misses the moment to try to put an occupation into the exact same category as things that are these intrinsic characteristics to individuals," said Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, during the Friday Senate committee hearing. "We do have strong laws on the books that demonstrate our respect for law enforcement."

Parent disagreed with the Senate Judiciary Committee sending the bill to the full Senate with the amended language. The vote was 5-3.

Unterman blasted the Democratic Caucus on Saturday for Parent's Tweet referring to the measure as now having a "poison pill." 

"If anything, the Democratic Caucus needs to be pouring honey on this building for those who are reticent to vote for this bill. For those Republican Senators who are going on the line for you and are going to vote for that hate crimes bill," said Unterman.

Also, on Saturday, both chambers agreed to take Father's Day off. The 2020 session will resume Monday at 11:00 a.m. in the House and 12:00 p.m. in the Senate.