By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published April 3, 2014
ATLANTA—The Georgia Catholic Conference, working on behalf of the Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Diocese of Savannah, monitored several pieces of legislation during the 2014 session of the Georgia General Assembly. The assembly adjourned on Thursday, March 20, with lawmakers working until midnight.
The conference, led by executive director Frank Mulcahy, strongly supported Senate Bill 98, which prohibits funding of abortions under policies issued through the health insurance exchanges established by the federal Affordable Care Act.
Both the Senate and the House adopted SB 98, which also eliminates abortion funding by the Department of Community Health in the state employees’ health benefit plan.
The Respect Life Ministry of the archdiocese joined the Catholic Conference in issuing several action alerts this session, encouraging Catholic constituents to contact their legislators in support of the bill.
“Respect Life Ministry has an excellent grassroots system in many parishes. A grassroots system is essential for advocacy,” said Mulcahy.
Lawmakers spent much time this session debating the issue of the loosening of gun restrictions in House Bill 875, which was opposed by the Georgia Catholic Conference and by many other faith groups.
Although the Senate Judiciary Committee initially made changes favored by the Catholic Conference to HB 875 related to the availability of guns and other weapons, the Senate ultimately accepted the House version of the bill with only limited changes.
The final bill continues to prohibit weapons in houses of worship “unless the governing body or authority of the place of worship permits the carrying of weapons or long guns by license holders.”
The bill, however, diminishes the penalty for carrying weapons to a $100 fine with no arrest permitted for a licensed holder. A person carrying a weapon without a license can be charged with a misdemeanor.
Beyond places of worship, the bill is wide ranging and, among numerous provisions, will allow carrying weapons in bars; in any government building not restricted or screened by a security officer and also in school safety zones if permitted by a duly authorized officer.
HB 875 provides a judicial licensing process for those judged mentally incompetent or not guilty of certain crimes by reason of insanity; prohibits local governments from regulating gun dealers or gun shows; protects those who claim to have inadvertently entered restricted parts of commercial airports; prohibits law enforcement from requiring production of a carry license when someone is carrying a weapon; and provides that defense of self and others is an absolute defense of any violation of weapon regulation.
“The version of gun control that passed really offers churches no real protection, other than a fine for those licensed holders who might bring a weapon,” said Mulcahy. “While the General Assembly minimized the penalty for carrying weapons in houses of worship, I have every confidence that Archbishop Gregory, Bishop Hartmayer and our pastors in Georgia will take appropriate action for the protection of those who enter our churches and foster the peace and reconciliation of the Gospel.”
Many critics have referred to the bill as “guns everywhere” legislation.
“Rather than refer to ‘guns everywhere,’ it would be more accurate to say that the legislation will allow carrying concealed weapons in many more places that under current law,” explained Mulcahy. “We do not believe that carrying more weapons in more places by more people contributes to public safety, security and peace.”
According to Mulcahy, the Georgia Catholic Conference did work well with other faith groups on opposition to the gun legislation, and he hopes it will lead to more active cooperation on other issues of significance in the future.
In other legislative news, the state assembly also adopted House Bill 804, supported by the Catholic Conference. The measure allows children under the age of 17 who have been victims of violent crimes to testify against perpetrators by video instead of in person.
Georgia lawmakers failed to pass any legislation to require state-regulated health plans to cover the screening, diagnosis and treatment of autism in children through age 6. In the next plan year, however, the state employee benefit plan will provide some coverage for autism to state employees. The Catholic Conference had supported the coverage for autism.
The General Assembly passed House Bill 772, which will require body fluid drug testing for food stamp recipients any time that a “reasonable suspicion exists that such applicant or recipient is using an illegal drug.”
The Catholic Conference opposed HB 772 as similar measures have been found unconstitutional. Mulcahy said the conference’s opposition is based on the dignity of the human person and the need for protection of children, who could be the ones to suffer if a parent or guardian lost food stamp subsidies if the law goes into effect.
For the first time in several years, said Mulcahy, the General Assembly did not pass adverse legislation directed at immigrants.
He expects the 2015 session will face issues that were not dealt with in this election year session.
“Certainly, many of the issues that were not addressed in 2014 will resurface in 2015 since most of those issues were related to real needs of real people in our society,” said Mulcahy. “The General Assembly simply did not address many needs that will not go away. For example, donations to student scholarship organizations, such as G.R.A.C.E. Scholars, have proven both popular and effective, but the cap on donations should be increased. Other issues related to the needs of the poor have not been adequately addressed.”
Gov. Nathan Deal has 40 days after the end of the session to sign or veto bills passed.
Mulcahy said that on the federal level, the most significant legislative issue in the coming months remains the need for comprehensive immigration reform.
“Religious freedom is also important, but until the Supreme Court resolves issues related to the application of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the HHS mandate, it is unlikely that Congress will take any action, despite multiple requests that it do so,” he said.