ATLANTA - State lawmakers have approved hate crimes legislation after lawmakers struck a deal to remove language protecting police and first responders.
The bill now goes to Gov. Brian Kemp's desk for his signature. Kemp's office indicated he would sign House Bill 426 into law pending legal review.
The Senate approved the legislation by a vote of 47-6 and less than an hour later, the House passed the measure 127-38.
The bill allows for increased penalties if an offender is convicted of a felony or one of five misdemeanors and it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt that they chose their victim based on his or her race, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, religion or physical or mental disability.
The Senate also added a requirement that law enforcement report suspected hate crimes to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation so the GBI can track where these crimes occur.
“Victims need protection against any attack motivated by hatred due to bias or prejudice,” said Sen. Donzella James, a Democrat from Atlanta, who spoke about her own experiences facing discrimination as a Black woman. “House Bill 426 is a measured approach at doing all of the things that we need to do to treat this injustice. It’s time that Georgia rise up and show that we will not stand for crimes done out of hate.”
A push for passage of the bill has gained momentum after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, as well as nationwide protests of racial injustice and police brutality. Arbery, a Black man, was pursued and fatally shot near Brunswick, Georgia, in February. Three white men, including a father and son, are charged in his death.
Bipartisan support for the measure was thrown in doubt after Republicans added “status of being or having been a first responder” as a protected class in a Senate committee last week. The ACLU, NAACP and House and Senate Democratic caucuses were among the groups that came out against the bill with the first responder provision added.
But lawmakers removed that language and moved it into a separate bill, that also passed both chambers Tuesday.
"It was a difficult task in front of us and as I said on the floor, I will never forget the value of bipartisan efforts to tackle such a big issue here," said Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, R-Georgia. "Minority Whip [Harold] Jones and Chairman [Bill] Cowsert and their caucuses have come together to really, truly create, I believe, a piece of legislation that 11 million Georgians can go to bed proud of this evening."
House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge said Tuesday was a "good day."
"It's not often that you have a day like today where you do something that I think matters to people and to the state and it's a very, very gratifying and I think it's a really good day for Georgia," said Ralston.
The longest-serving member of the House and one of the co-sponsors of the bill, State Rep. Calvin Smyre got emotional when speaking about the significance of its passage.
"I've been in the House a long time. I've been here 46 years and I've seen a lot and I've had a lot, a lot of moments in my career, but today is the finest," Rep. Smyre said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.