Thousands gathered outside the State Capitol to protest police brutality and racial injustice as lawmakers met for the 2020 legislative session on June 19, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Georgia lawmakers reached across the aisle Tuesday to pass a contentious hate-crimes bill that aims to protect people in the Peach State from acts of violence or property damage perpetrated because of the victim’s race, sex or gender.

House Bill 426 was pushed through the Senate after stalling there for more than a year, following its passage out of the state House of Representatives in March of 2019. It then gained final passage in the House less than an hour later by an overwhelming vote, 127-38.

Through tears, Rep. Calvin Smyre, the General Assembly’s longest serving member, proclaimed after the vote that co-sponsoring the hate-crimes bill was his finest act as a lawmaker in Georgia.

“I’ve had a lot, a lot, a lot of moments in my career,” said Smyre, D-Columbus, whose tenure spans nearly five decades in the legislature. “But today is my finest.”

The bill designates hate crimes as an enhancement to charges that prosecutors have discretion to bring, not as standalone offenses. It specifies hate crimes as those targeting a victim based on “race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability.”

It would restore hate-crimes protections enacted in Georgia in 2000 that were stripped out of state law in 2004 by the Georgia Supreme Court, which ruled lawmakers did not clearly define a hate crime.

Rep. Chuck Efstration, who sponsored the legislation, reflected on the historic nature of the bill, which if signed by Gov. Brian Kemp would make Georgia no longer one of four states in the U.S. that does not have a hate-crimes law on the books.

“[This bill will] send a strong message that there’s no place for hate in Georgia,” said Efstration, R-Dacula.

Its passage was also hailed by Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, who pressed hard for the bill to move swiftly out of the General Assembly in the wake of the high-profile fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick and nationwide protests against racial injustice.

“There are very few times that members of this legislative body get called upon at a defining moment in our history,” said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “But this is a defining moment in Georgia.”

Passage of the bill came after days of tense back-and-forth between Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the Senate over proposed changes, including whether to add police officers to the categories protected from hate crimes.

Sen. Harold Jones II, who led the Democratic side of negotiations in the Senate, framed the bill’s passage as a model for how both sides of the aisle can unite to pass important legislation amid intense disagreements at the state Capitol.

“We many times talk about bipartisan legislation,” said Jones, D-Augusta. “This is it. This is the definition of it.”

Sen. Bill Cowsert, who pushed for changes to the bill on the Republican side, called the bill a needed step toward curbing racism in the state that has lingered long after the end of slavery and segregation.

“We have a long history in Georgia of embedded discrimination,” said Cowsert, R-Athens. “We can’t deny it, we can’t run from it, but we can change it.”

The Senate passed the bill by a 47-6 vote with some Republican lawmakers voting against it.

Ahead of Tuesday’s votes, the bill by Efstration underwent some changes from its original version that boosted penalties to a maximum of two years in prison and limited offenses that could carry a hate-crimes enhancement to felonies and some misdemeanors like assault or theft.

It also was tweaked late Monday to include a proposal from Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan requiring the annual collection of statistics on hate crimes. Those reports would not be subject to public inspection except by defendants and their alleged victims.

Jones said the inclusion of data collection in the final version is “extremely important.” Keeping tight statistics would help local law enforcement agencies pinpoint where hate crimes may be taking place.

“It’s not just something that’s feel-good,” Jones said. “It’s actually something that’s going to allow us to combat hate crimes in a scientific way.”

Left out of the final bill Tuesday was a late move by Republican lawmakers to add police officers and other first responders as protected classes alongside inherent qualities like race and gender.

Those protections were added to the bill last Friday, sparking outrage from Democratic lawmakers and social justice advocates who viewed the move as a slap in the face for black communities and other groups that have historically faced hateful and discriminatory crimes, including from police officers themselves.

Instead, the first-responder protections were tacked onto a separate bill dealing with police peer counselors, House Bill 838. It also passed out of the General Assembly on Tuesday by a largely party-line vote.

The maneuvering marked a compromise between Republicans and Democrats that tempered passions on both sides enough to ease the hate-crimes bill’s passage, though some groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have opposed the first-responder protections.

Ralston, the House speaker, said those protections were pushed by Senate lawmakers and that he “didn’t have a problem” with them being in a separate bill.

Amid lingering concerns, the passage of Estration’s hate-crimes bill marked a breakthrough in pushing forward a high-profile measure that rose to the top of the agenda for many state lawmakers in what remains of the 2020 legislative session.

The bill gained fresh calls for passage following the fatal shooting of Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was shot dead in February during a chase by two white men. One of those men, Travis McMichael, allegedly called Arbery a racial slur after shooting him with a shotgun, according to recent court testimony.

Renewed energy for passing hate-crimes legislation also came amid intense protests across the country over the deaths of Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks that spurred many top state lawmakers, including Ralston, to press for passage.

In the Senate, lawmakers from both parties roundly praised the hate-crimes bill.

Sen. Ed Harbison, D-Columbus, described the bill as “a healing factor” in Georgia that showed how “the spirit of mankind is great.”

“I believe this represents great hope, great belief that we can help each other change and be better for it,” Harbison said Tuesday.

Not everyone in the Senate was on board with the measure. Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, worried lawmakers might be over-complicating the issue in a way that could “catch up a lot of people.”

“They’re going to get their name inscribed in a database with a lot of people they don’t want to be associated with,” Heath said.

But by and large, Senate lawmakers agreed the time is nigh for Georgia to go without a hate-crimes law.

Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, who is in the final days of her last term as a state senator, recounted receiving death threats and finding a cross in her yard after converting to Judaism. She cast the bill as a legacy vote for her and her Senate colleagues.

“We are better than this and we can do better than this,” Unterman said.