In the race for state representative in District 160, two pieces of legislation that Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed are points of division between the two candidates.
James “Major” Woodall, the Democratic challenger, has criticized Rep. Jan Tankersley, the Republican incumbent, for voting for both the “campus carry” legislation, House Bill 859, and the “religious liberty” bill, House Bill 757.
The Statesboro area’s entire delegation, including three Republican representatives and one Republican senator, voted for the final versions of these bills. Deal, also a Republican, broke with the majority of his party’s legislative members when he vetoed the bills in April and May.
Woodall declared his opposition to these bills before the vetoes. In a March interview, he said he supported the right to carry firearms, "even open carry," in general but believed state lawmakers should have heeded the concerns of people who would be directly affected. Some student government organizations, faculty members, university administrators and the state University System chancellor opposed the legislation.
"So when I saw that our district representative voted for that, I said something has to be done, no more talking is needed, because obviously we're not being listened to and not being heard,” Woodall said in March.
The bill would have allowed people over age 21 with a permit to carry a handgun to bring one concealed into many areas of Georgia’s public college and university campuses. Guns would still have been prohibited in campus housing and in buildings used for athletic events, but would have been allowed in classrooms.
During the legislative session, the governor had expressed concern about the campus carry bill because of the presence of child care centers on college campuses. But in May, Deal gave a broader statement of reasons for vetoing it. If the bill’s intent was "to increase safety of students on college campuses, it is highly questionable that such would be the result," he said.
In an August interview, Wodall said "campus carry" supporters are attempting to bring it back.
“They are attempting to draft some type of amendment to take day cares off of campus so that they can get guns on campus,” he said. “That’s something that we’re starting to hear about, and we’re dissatisfied with that result, and we’re not going to accept it.”
Tankersley accepts vetoes
Interviewed last week, Tankersley said she has nothing but the utmost respect for the governor, who has been very good to Bulloch County.
“He was very clear about his reasons for the veto,” she said. “I think my record speaks for itself. I did vote in favor of it.”
Supporters argued that the legislation would allow students and university employees to protect themselves against criminals. While it was being debated, crimes on campuses, including in Atlanta at Georgia State University, were in the news, Tankersley noted.
“So it was a very tough call,” she said. “I do live in Atlanta three months out of the year, and the condo that I rent is right across the street from Georgia State, and there was a shooting there during the last few days of the session. We heard sirens and saw blue lights everywhere.”
Another incident was reported at private Emory University, she recalled.
“There were just a lot of fears and concerns, and there were things that I had concerns about,” Tankersley said.
She also noted that the bill would have allowed concealed handguns, not assault weapons, and that fewer than half of university students are age 21 or over.
But Tankersley said she was glad the governor was able to consider other concerns.
“I’m comfortable with his veto,” she said. “I have complete confidence in Governor Deal. Even if those concerns came up very late, at the last moment or whatever, they were concerns, and I’m glad that he is the type of leader that he is and that he acted on those concerns.”
On whether she would support a new bill allowing guns on campus, Tankersley said she has to consider any bill on its actual content, and hasn’t seen any proposal at this point.
‘Religious freedom’ bill
She gave a similar answer on House Bill 757, sometimes also called a religious exemptions bill. The final version, which Deal vetoed, would have allowed faith-based organizations to refuse services and the use of their buildings or to employ any individual on religious grounds. It would also have allowed anyone to refuse to attend a wedding or other ceremony.
Critics, Woodall among them, called it an attempt to discriminate against same-sex couples after same-sex marriage was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the August interview, he said Tankersley had voted “to allow discrimination” against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community in the name of religious freedom.
But the legislation started out as a “Pastor Protection Act” that received unanimous support in the House, Tankersley noted. The Feb. 11 vote was 161-0. That simpler bill said that ministers could conduct or refuse to conduct marriages or other rites at their discretion.
Meanwhile, she said, there was interest in adopting a state version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed into law in 1993 by President Bill Clinton.
The Supreme Court in a 1997 ruling held that the act’s limitation on laws that unintentionally restrict religious activity did not apply to state and local laws, but only to the federal government.
A number of states have passed their own laws to bring the RFRA provisions down to the local level, but Georgia had not.
“You’ve not heard any objections to that language, and there are a number of people who feel like their religious liberties are not as protected as they once were, that there needs to be better protection for people who want to exercise their faith,” Tankersley said.
“And I am a Christian, and I’m not going to disparage nor ever plan to disparage any single person or any group of people, and I’m sure where it all derailed and it became what it became,” she said. “But anyway, legal interpretation was that it did offer protection to those who wanted to exercise their faith.”
The final billed passed 37-18 in the Senate and 104-65 in the House.
But Deal immediately began to receive a different interpretation than legislators had been given, Tankersley said.
“The governor became aware of all that and again, he spelled out his reasons for the veto very clearly in his statements, and again, I do honor his decision,” she said.
Again, she said she has not seen any replacement legislation.
The Legislature, she noted, passed 307 bills the governor signed this year, while he vetoed 16. People can read any of the bills for themselves at www.legis.ga.gov.
No debate planned
Woodall said he was challenging Tankersley to a debate. She said she doesn’t know that she needs to debate him.
“I have a record that I can stand on, and I think my record tells my story,” she said. “He needs to get his message out, and I don’t know why I would entertain having my supporters come to hear his message.”
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.