ATLANTA – The flash of confetti in the early morning hours belied what had become a bitter end for the 2017 legislative session.
The shreds of paper – documents joyously torn apart in a longstanding tradition marking the conclusion of the session – flew in the House Chamber just moments after it was announced that the Senate had wrapped up without approving the House’s plan for modernizing adoption in Georgia.
Now, that measure – which cleared the House with a unanimous vote in 2017 before becoming mired in a religious liberty debate – is at the center of speculation heading into this year’s legislative session, which starts Monday.
The bill, which stalled in the final minutes of last year’s session, remains alive in the Senate.
“It would set a good tone for the session if they can get that done quickly,” House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, told reporters Thursday in a pre-session briefing where he also named the bill as one of his top priorities for this year.
“I was very disappointed that that bill didn’t pass last session because by failing to pass that bill, we lost an opportunity to modernize and expedite our process here in Georgia and get kids out of the foster system and into permanent, stable, loving homes quicker,” he added. “We lost that year, and I think that is just so unfortunate that we’ve lost that time.”
The state’s adoption law was last updated nearly three decades ago. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, would, among other things, give mothers the option to waive a 10-day period where they can revoke the surrender of parental rights.
“This is gut-wrenching and oftentimes leaves the adopting parents reluctant to bond with the baby the first 10 days knowing that the mother can change her mind,” Reeves said from the House floor last year, adding that the option also gives the birth mother the chance to have “immediate finality.”
But the measure hit a roadblock in the Senate when lawmakers there attempted to add a provision that would allow private agencies that receive state funding to refuse to place a child if doing so conflicted with their “mission.” Critics decried this as an attempt to allow agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples.
Sen. Chuck Payne, R-Dalton, says he supports such religious protections but, given that Gov. Nathan Deal would likely veto the amended bill, he said the Senate should pass the original House bill.
“This issue is too important to pass a bill just to see the governor veto it,” he said at the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce’s recent Good Morning Dalton breakfast state legislative update.
Rep. Clay Pirkle, R-Ashburn, said he’d like to see religious liberty legislation pursued separately.
“You just don’t want to inject politics into issues that are as important as a forever family for a kid,” he said. “I understand the passions for the change. I completely understand. But we must look after those who are absolutely underserved in the state, and those kids are.”
Sen. Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge, said he believed the Senate will take up the measure this year without the controversial amendment. But that doesn’t mean the issue will go away.
“I think concerns Sen. Ligon has about faith-based adoptions are sincere and I think they need to be talked about,” Burke said, referring to Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, who proposed the amendment. “But I think that certainly – in my mind – would be something that’s important enough to have that conversation as a standalone issue.
“Having a conversation doesn’t necessarily mean that we pass it as it was discussed last year,” Burke said. “I think it’s certainly possible that some common ground can be found to protect both sides.”
Any such discussion now would happen as Georgia competes for the second headquarters of Amazon, which would bring 50,000 jobs to the state. Past attempts at passing religious freedom measures have faced overwhelming opposition from the business community, including from heavyweights such as Salesforce, Disney and Coca-Cola.
And when a religious liberty bill did pass in 2016, Deal vetoed it.
It remains to be seen how much of an appetite legislators have for pursuing the issue this year, but Ralston indicated Thursday that such a measure would not go far in the House.
“I haven’t seen very much of the experience in the states that have tackled this issue that makes me want to model after places like North Carolina and Indiana and others,” Ralston said.
“I’m kind of a forward-looking guy, and I want to look forward. Georgia is a big, growing diverse state. My focus has been and continues to be on creating jobs in this state and growing jobs and growing economic opportunity,” he added.