State Senate Passes Religious Freedom; State School Takeovers
With additional reporting by Matthew Charles Cardinale
(APN) ATLANTA — On Thursday, March 05, 2015, the full State Senate voted to engross SB 129, the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Bill, in a vote of 38 yeas to 17 nays. The bill passed the Senate in a vote of 37 to 15. Engrossment means that the bill cannot be changed; the House will have to vote it up or down.
The State Senate also voted to approve two pieces of controversial legislation allowing a referendum on a constitutional amendment to create a statewide school district that would take over failing schools.
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM BILL PASSES SENATE
State Sens. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) and Elena Parent (D-Atlanta) spoke in objection to the engrossment.
“Because of the fiascos in two Committee meetings. I’m very disturbed with all that recent history, we are moving to engross,” Sen. Fort told the full Senate.
In the first committee meeting, Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) had an amendment that would have helped alleviate concerns of the LGBTQI community, by defining the eradication of discrimination as a compelling government interest, but it was ruled out of order because he did not present it twenty four hours in advance of the meeting.
The second meeting, with no notice of SB 129 on the agenda, only lasted about ten minutes. Sen. Fort told Atlanta Progressive News he had an amendment prepared to offer to the committee, but he elected to visit the restroom between committee meetings, and when he got back, the vote was over.
“Now you want to engross, cut off any opportunity to perfect the bill, cut off any opportunity to hold you to your word. If you are against discrimination, you would have allowed this amendment to go forward, this amendment to be heard, this amendment to be voted on,” Sen. Fort said to the full Senate.
“There is no credible argument to be made to engross this bill. Shame, shame, shame,” Sen. Fort.
Social media is buzzing with outrage over the engrossment and passage of this bill. For example, there is a petition to Delta Airlines to oppose Georgia’s license to discriminate.
GetEQUAL Georgia and Rise Up Georgia have sent out a travel advisory to alert people traveling to the State of Georgia of a risk of discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
Even many of Georgia’s religious leaders oppose the Religious Freedom Bill.
One letter has been signed by over sixty congregations from Georgia Faith Leaders Unite Against Discrimination opposing the legislation.
Former Attorney General of Georgia, Michael Bowers, calls the legislation ill-conceived, unnecessary, and mean-spirited. He believes, if enacted into law, it will be an excuse to practice invidious discrimination.
STATE SCHOOL TAKEOVER LEGISLATION PASSES SENATE
Two pieces of legislation also passed related to the creation of a statewide school district, the so-called Opportunity School District (OSD), to take over failing schools: one enabling bill, and the other calling for a referendum for a constitutional amendment.
In a previous report, APN explored numerous concerns of fact and policy related to the OSD legislative package.
SR 287, calling for the referendum, which would take place in the 2016 General Election, passed 38 to 15, with one Democrat, State Sen. Freddie Powell Sims (D-Dawson), supporting the bill. This allowed for Gov. Deal to claim bipartisan support.
SB 133, the enabling legislation for the OSD, passed 38 to 17.
State Sen. Donzella James (D-Fulton) did not vote on the referendum, but upon seeing its passage, supported the enabling legislation.
“They had already passed the Opportunity School District [resolution], so I wanted input on how they’re going to distribute it, and making sure they don’t leave special needs children out,” James told Atlanta Progressive News.
“We have so many schools failing, and we have to do something about it. They’re taking over the schools. I talked to the author about putting it in there [an amendment] for special needs children,” James said.
“They dogging me [the Georgia Association of Educators] – I’ve been one hundred percent with them. I did one thing they didn’t like,” James said.
“Today, we are one step closer to creation of an Opportunity School District, and one step closer to restoring children’s and parents’ hopes for a brighter future,” Gov. Nathan Deal said in a press release.
“We’ve seen the successes that Louisiana, Tennessee and Michigan attained with similar, bipartisan measures. Working together, I believe Georgians can achieve the same for our students and families. I congratulate Sen. Butch Miller on his diligence and hard work in advancing these education reforms, and I commend the courage of the 37 other senators who supported this legislation,” Deal said.
“As the House considers this bill, I am confident that its members will also put the needs of Georgia’s most vulnerable students first. Through the efforts of our legislators, we will put this referendum on the ballot so that Georgians can assure that a child’s chance of success isn’t dependent on his or her ZIP code,” Deal said.
The OSD legislation requires a constitutional amendment, for which there must be a two-thirds majority in both houses and majority approval by Georgia voters at the next general election.
The OSD would allow the state to intervene in schools that have received failing grades for three consecutive years. The district could add no more than 20 schools per year, for a total of 100 at any given time. The schools would remain in the OSD for no less than five years and no more than ten years.