As the halfway point nears for Georgia's legislative session, Peach State lawmakers are considering a handful of bills touching on hot topics that have set off litigation nationwide, including measures that could have wide-reaching impacts on homeless people, gender identity and vaping in public.
A look at a few of the notable bills state lawmakers are considering
Enforcing Public Camping Bans on Homeless People
Under S.B. 62, which the Senate State & Local Government Operations Committee voted 4-3 to advance earlier this month, Georgia cities and counties could be made to enforce bans on "public camping or sleeping" by homeless people.
S.B. 62, proposed by state Sen. Carden Summers, R-Cordele, calls for an audit to examine how state and local governments are spending federal funds allocated to programs for the homeless and gauge the success of those programs and expenses. It would also create a structure for the state to designate camping areas for homeless people called "sanctioned camping areas."
If the bill were to become law, these sanctioned camping areas would be on state property designated by the State Properties Commission or on other property designated by the department for use by homeless individuals for camping, sleeping or storing personal property. The areas could also include "small shelters for no more than two individuals" provided by the agency or organization operating the camping facilities.
Those staying in the sanctioned camping areas would only be permitted to camp and store personal property at areas within the site designated to them, and mental health and substance use evaluations may be offered, according to the bill.
"An owner, operator or employee of a private camping facility designated as a sanctioned camping area pursuant to this code section shall be immune from liability for all civil claims, excluding claims involving such owner, operator or employee's intentional or grossly negligent conduct, arising out of the ownership, operation, management or other control of such facility," the bill says.
As proposed, the bill says counties and cities would be unable to ban or discourage peace officers or prosecutors they employ from enforcing "any order or ordinance" prohibiting unauthorized public camping, sleeping or obstruction of sidewalks.
It also authorizes the state attorney general to bring civil actions against cities and counties who violate the rules, and provides a pathway for citizens to bring whistleblower actions in the name of the state against violating cities and counties.
States including Texas and Missouri have passed similar laws in the last few years prohibiting street camping while diverting money from affordable housing projects to short-term shelter solutions. And cities like Austin, Texas, and Denver have also passed ordinances banning public camping and allowing sanctioned campsites.
Still, legal issues could arise from the Georgia bill, both from those who have experienced homelessness and those seeking stricter enforcement of the bans on public camping.
The unhoused and their advocates have launched suits against local governments in California, Florida, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Idaho, Hawaii and elsewhere to block these sorts of bans, arguing they violate plaintiffs' rights to due process and free speech and to protections against unlawful property seizure. In contrast, business owners have sued to push cities to enforce some of the same ordinances the unhoused plaintiffs' suits are trying to block.
Gender Identity in Crosshairs
S.B. 88, which is currently being rewritten by Summers, its sponsor, would prohibit schools from teaching children under the age of 16 about matters such as gender identities, other than their biological sex, without the express written consent of the child's guardian.
In its current form, the bill would ban any adult acting "in loco parentis" — defined in the bill as any person exercising control over a child as a caregiver or as a member of the staff of any private, public or charter school, social services agency, library, camp or "similar facility or program" — from providing or obtaining from a child information "of a sensitive nature" without the legal guardian's consent. This information, according to the bill, is defined as sex education or information about a child's sexual orientation or gender identity, other than the child's biological sex.
In practical terms, this would require that parents of children in public, private and charter schools opt their children into sex education classes rather than opt them out if they don't want them to participate, as is the current practice in Georgia's public schools.
The bill also says that schools can't change the name, sex or gender of a child under the age of 16 in their official school record without written permission from parents, accompanied by a copy of the student's amended birth certificate reflecting a change in gender.
The bill would also bar adults from instructing, educating or training a child while dressed "in a sexually provocative manner, applying current community standards" as determined by their workplace without the express written permission of the child's guardian.
The bill currently proposes punishing those who don't comply with its terms by withholding funds from public and charter schools, rendering private schools ineligible to be a qualified, or accredited, school or program, sanctioning certificated personnel and revoking the tax-exempt status of nonprofit organizations.
Sarah Hunt-Blackwell, an attorney and Georgia First Amendment policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union, testified before a state Senate committee on the bill earlier this month, saying the measure would violate the First Amendment rights of students and educators by censoring "LGBTQ+ questions, concerns and experiences."
According to Hunt-Blackwell, the Constitution protects "nonintimate conversations about gender identity and sexual orientation, even in schools," and S.B. 88 runs afoul of that protection. It is also a content-based regulation, she said, meaning that it limits speech due to the topic, idea or message being expressed.
"Extensive case law has established that content-based regulations are presumptively unconstitutional unless they serve a compelling state interest. There is not a compelling interest in limiting nonintimate sex and gender discussions in schools," Hunt-Blackwell said. "If anything, rising suicide rates among LGBTQ+ teens suggests the compelling interest that educators need more resources for these students and should be having more of these conversations, not barring them altogether."
Critics have compared S.B. 88 to so-called don't say gay laws already in place in other states that try to stop teachers from discussing LGBTQ issues with students. One such law in Florida, H.B. 1557 or the Parental Rights in Education Act, has faced widespread opposition from students and parental groups who say it is an "unlawful attempt to stigmatize, silence and erase LGBTQ people in Florida's public schools," and that its "sweeping, vague ban" on discussing sexual orientation or gender identity amounts to a chilling effect on free speech.
Earlier this month, a Florida federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by parents and students against Florida's law, saying they couldn't point to a "concrete future harm" that would be prevented by stopping its enforcement.
Summers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
A Bill to Bar Gender Surgery on Minors
Another Summers-sponsored bill, S.B. 140, hopes to bar hospitals and other licensed health care facilities from providing minors with certain surgical procedures and gender-affirming care, including most sex-reassignment surgeries and hormone-replacement therapies.
The bill, which the Senate Health and Human Services Committee passed 10-4 Wednesday, wouldn't prohibit medication that slows or stops puberty. However, it would ban health care providers from giving transgender minors hormones such as estrogen or testosterone. Doctors would also be banned from performing surgeries on children.
Summers contends that minors are too young to make the decision to take serious medications or undergo the surgical procedures at issue in the bill. He told the committee that S.B. 140 provides a "wait-and-see approach" that would allow them to make those decisions for themselves when they are older.
The bill itself includes language about that same "do no harm" approach, saying that giving a minor with gender dysphoria the time to "mature and develop his or her own identity is preferable to causing the child permanent physical damage."
"The General Assembly has an obligation to protect children, whose brains and executive functioning are still developing, from undergoing unnecessary and irreversible medical treatment," the bill says.
While the bill would prevent licensed health care facilities from providing most sex reassignment surgeries or any other surgical procedures "performed for the purpose of altering primary or secondary sexual characteristics" and hormone replacement therapies to minors if passed, it does include some exceptions.
Individuals born with "a medically verifiable disorder of sex development" or partial androgen insensitivity syndrome would still have access to the treatments under the bill as it is currently written, as would those seeking the treatments for medical conditions "other than gender dysphoria or for the purpose of sex reassignment" as long as the treatments are deemed "medically necessary."
The bill would also allow minors to continue receiving hormone treatments if they began before July 1, when the bill, if signed into law, would take effect.
If the measure becomes law, licensed physicians who violate its rules would be held administratively accountable to the Georgia Composite Medical Board. The bill says they would not, however, be held civilly liable for damages to any person in any civil or administrative action or criminally responsible for injury, death or loss to person or property on the basis that they didn't comply.
In prepared testimony written and shared on the ACLU's website, Hunt-Blackwell spoke out against S.B. 140, saying access to gender-affirming care is medically necessary and saves lives.
"It is intrusive for this body to remove choice from Georgia families and politicize medical care for minors in this state," Hunt-Blackwell said.
New Taxes, Restrictions on Vaping
Sponsored by state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, H.B. 191 and H.B. 192 would raise taxes on cigarettes and vaping products.
Under H.B. 191, the tax on a pack of 20 cigarettes would increase from 37 cents to 57 cents, and a "like rate" would be applied for other size packages. That 20 cent increase would be used by the state to "address healthcare issues affecting Georgia residents," according to the bill.
Under H.B. 192, the tax on vaping products would increase from 7% of the wholesale price to 15%. Proceeds from that increase would also be used to address health issues, the bill says.
Stephens did not respond to requests for comment.
Another measure, S.B. 47, introduced by state Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, is aimed at restricting vaping in public spaces.
The state Senate voted 51-3 earlier this month to pass the bill, which would regulate vaping in the same way the state already regulates smoking. The bill is now undergoing debate in the House.
As proposed, the bill would bring rules for vaping in public in line with Georgia's 2005 Smoke-Free Air Act, which prohibits people from smoking in many public places, excluding retail tobacco stores, hotel and motel rooms designated as smoking-friendly, bars that only admit patrons older than 18 and privately owned convention rooms.
Any person found smoking in areas outlawed by the Smoke-Free Air Act commits a misdemeanor and can be fined $100 to $500. If S.B. 47 becomes law, the same would be true for vapers.
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