ATLANTA (AP) — If politics makes for unlikely allies, a bill in Georgia to ban picketing at homes has created one of the odder coalitions.
State lawmakers must decide Thursday on the final day of their session whether to pass legislation that targets labor unions. A range of groups who don't often agree with organized labor — libertarian tea partyers, small-government Republicans, anti-abortion activists and others — want it rejected, saying the bill fixes a problem that doesn't exist and would harm their free speech rights, too.
The prohibition on picketing is among dozens of bills that lawmakers must accept, reject or let fail without a vote before departing the capitol at the end of their 40-day session. The bill from from Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, seeks to protect what it describes as a resident's right to "quiet enjoyment."
"A person's home is their castle," he said. "It's a foundation, a principle of our country that someone should have some privacy at home."
His opponents see the restriction as unnecessary, especially because police can already arrest protesters who trespass on private property, make threats or become disorderly. While the Georgia Chamber of Commerce supports the bill, officials there are unaware of any instance in Georgia where picketers have targeted a home.
"To me, there's absolutely no justification for it," said Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross. "If you vote for this bill, you're practically coming down against individual liberty."
The anti-picketing bill will likely trigger one of the more intense debates while lawmakers also decide:
— Whether to trim unemployment benefits so the state can gradually repay federal loans;
— Give final approval to an overhaul of the state's criminal justice system;
— Whether to require welfare applicants to take drug tests.
Balfour's bill carries stiff penalties. Anyone ignoring a judge's order to halt a protest could be held in contempt of court. A subsequent offense could carry $1,000-per-day fine for individuals and a $10,000-per-day penalty for organizations. The legislation also increases the criminal penalties for people accused of organizing protests that involve trespass.
"The pure threat of that level of financial damage would overwhelmingly be to chill free speech, chill our action, chill our freedoms," said Dan Becker, president of Georgia Right To Life, an anti-abortion group opposed to the bill.
Becker, who previously founded a company that employed unionized carpenters, said members of his group have peacefully picketed outside the homes of doctors who perform abortions. While Balfour has told Becker his group's activities would not be targeted under the bill, Becker said Georgia Right To Life lawyers are not convinced.
Besides the prohibition on picketing, the state AFL-CIO wants the legislation to fail because it would also require the state Department of Labor to develop forms explaining workers cannot be required to join a union. Union leaders would need annual permission from their workers to deduct dues from paychecks.
"You don't have to do that if you join the United Way, the Republican Party, your church, whatever," said Charlie Flemming, president of Georgia's AFL-CIO.
Flemming said he was unaware of any instance where AFL-CIO workers have picketed outside someone's home.
The Georgia Tea Party Patriots are lobbying lawmakers to reject the bill and will include their vote as part of an upcoming scorecard the group will distribute publicly, said Julianne Thompson, the organization's state coordinator.
Thompson said the Tea Party Patriots would be open to a ban on picket protests in areas zoned exclusively for residential homes. But she said Balfour's proposal was too vague, possibly allowing police to ban pickets at mixed-use properties or where a protest happened to be close to a home.
Late Tuesday, Republican Rep. Wendell Willard amended the bill to strike specific references to labor unions. He said Balfour's measure would not withstand a lawsuit if it targeted the free speech rights of specific classes of people, for example, unionized workers.
While broadening the bill might make it constitutional, the new version would affect more people and win Balfour more opponents.
"It's an anti-civil disobedience law," said Tim Franzen, a spokesman for Occupy Atlanta. "Now it's just anti-anybody."