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Bill to expedite rape kits passes, medical marijuana fails as legislature wraps up
Grants for pregnancy centers gets OK; no vote for revised religious freedom bill
Georgia Legislature Albe 2
Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, left, and Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus, confer with Senate President Pro Temper David Shafer, R-Duluth, on the Senate floor during the final day of the general assembly Thursday in Atlanta. - photo by Jason Getz/AP Photo

ATLANTA — Georgia lawmakers gave final approval Thursday to bills setting strict timelines for testing rape kits and creating state-funded grants to pregnancy resource centers that discourage women from getting abortions.

Thursday marked the 40th and final day of the legislative session, and lawmakers worked past midnight to send bills to Gov. Nathan Deal. Any bills that don't pass both chambers before adjournment must start all over again next year, and final passage of several hot-button issues lingered to the last minute.

Among the late-hour moves, six Georgia lawmakers proposed creating high stakes for businesses now mobilizing against a "religious freedom" bill that protects same-sex marriage opponents. But leadership swiftly backed away from the measure.

Opponents of the recently passed bill — including top employers, the NFL and Hollywood figures — fear it would excuse discrimination, especially against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people. The bill, which awaits Deal's consideration, would prevent government burden of religious belief or penalty against faith-based organizations, including refusal to serve or hire someone. It also would protect clergy who won't perform gay marriages.

The new proposal emerged in the final hours of the session and would have allowed employees or consumers to file suit against a company if they feel it has violated a nondiscrimination employment policy or a less formal "pledge."

Meanwhile, the House and Senate remained at odds on a medical marijuana bill and never voted on a bill expanding the number of people eligible to use a medical marijuana derivative in Georgia. Macon Republican Rep. Allen Peake wanted to allow patients diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other conditions, to possess cannabis oil.

House members the measure tried to force a Senate floor vote but failed.

The two chambers did resolve a dispute over a bill ensuring timely processing of rape kits for sexual assault victims.

Rep. Scott Holcomb, an Atlanta Democrat, proposed requiring law enforcement to pick up the kits from hospitals within 96 hours, and his bill unanimously passed the House earlier this year. But it stalled in the Senate without a committee hearing.

Republican Sen. Renee Unterman of Buford has said a federal grant will fix any backlogs of rape kit testing in Georgia and declined to act on Holcomb's proposal. Holcomb used a legislative maneuver to get a Senate floor vote late Thursday night.

"We are good," Holcomb said late Thursday before their final vote. House members from both parties gave him a standing ovation following passage.

Bills that survived the final day head to the Republican governor for his signature, including the $2 million grant program for facilities that agree not to encourage or discuss abortions as an option with pregnant women who use their services. Other states, including Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, have similar programs benefiting pregnancy centers.

Democrats opposing the bill have argued that the centers use deceptive advertising to bring pregnant women in, and then refuse to discuss or discourage abortion regardless of a woman's opinion. Supporters say it could lower the number of abortions in Georgia because women could get free supplies and some medical care during their pregnancies.

Other measures sent to the governor Thursday would:

• Prevent law enforcement officers facing indictment from testifying unchallenged during grand jury proceedings or being present throughout the session.

• Allow college students who are at least 18 to carry stun guns on state campuses.

• Prevent financial institutions from refusing services to legal gun or ammunition sellers.

• Require law enforcement to obtain search warrants before flying drones over personal property but allow private citizens to use the aircraft on personal property to film wildlife.