Flanked by state lawmakers, Gov. Brian Kemp signs Georgia’s hate-crimes bill into law on June 26, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Hate crimes will be punishable in Georgia for the first time in 16 years after Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation Friday that cleared the General Assembly this week amid tense back-and-forth and tears of joy.

Under legislation Kemp signed Friday, prison time could be meted out for those who terrorize or physically harm others based on their race, color, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, sex, gender, or whether they have a physical or mental disability.

The added penalties would be tacked onto charges for felony crimes and certain misdemeanors like assault or theft. The most severe offenses could add up to two years extra behind bars, plus fines.

The new law also requires state officials to keep data on hate crimes committed in the state for statistical purposes, though records of those crimes will be shielded from public viewing except for alleged perpetrators and victims.

At a signing ceremony Friday afternoon, Kemp said the bill’s passage came as a “silver lining” at a time of social unrest and fears over coronavirus in Georgia. It would not solve all the state’s lingering problems with racism but marked “a powerful step forward,” he said.

“Today as we sign this bill into law, we also reaffirm our desire to put progress ahead of politics,” Kemp said. “We must do our part to ensure that our state is a place where all people, no matter their skin color, can live, work and prosper.”

With Kemp’s signature, the bill restores 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 had not clearly defined a hate crime.

Now, Georgia will no longer count among the few remaining states in the U.S. that do not have a hate-crimes law on the books.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, was hustled though both chambers in the General Assembly on Wednesday after it had stalled for 15 months in the state Senate.

Its passage provoked the legislature’s longest serving member, Rep. Calvin Smyre, to proclaim through tears that it was his finest piece of work as a lawmaker.

“This is a defining moment and this is a great day in the history of our state of Georgia,” said Smyre, D-Columbus, who co-sponsored the bill. “We will never, ever, ever, ever tolerate hate in our state.”

The breakthrough followed the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was gunned down during a pursuit by two white men near Brunswick in February. His death fueled protests this month and prompted powerful lawmakers like Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, to intervene in favor of the hate-crimes bill.

But the bill sparked controversy in the Senate when Republican leaders, wary of protesters focusing their anger on law enforcement, moved to include police officers and other first responders as protected classes alongside race and gender.

Last-minute negotiating led Senate lawmakers to strike an accord that kept the first-responder protections in place but moved them to a separate bill that also passed out of the General Assembly.

Leaders from both parties roundly hailed the bipartisan compromise during Friday’s signing ceremony.

“It all started with the opportunity to actually speak with each other and not to close dialogue,” said Sen. Harold Jones, D-Augusta, who led negotiations for Senate Democratic lawmakers. “And I want to tell the citizens of Georgia that your General Assembly is going to be better for this.”