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After outcry, Georgia lawmaker abandons bill that would have banned Muslims from wearing veils

A woman under her burqa in Kabul. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

A Republican state lawmaker in Georgia has abandoned a bill that would have effectively banned Muslim women from wearing burqas, niqabs or other veils that cover their faces in public.

State Rep. Jason Spencer on Tuesday pre-filed House Bill 3, which, among other things, would have  added language explicitly referring to women in a state anti-masking law initially aimed at men in the Ku Klux Klan. If the bill had passed during the 2017 legislative session, it could have prevented Muslim women from wearing religious garb in public places in Georgia — a possibility that alarmed Muslim advocates.

The proposed bill would have also banned men and women from wearing clothing that conceals their faces when posing for their drivers’ license photos or while driving on state roadways.

The bill did not specifically mention Muslim women, burqas or niqabs, and Spencer insisted he had “no intention of targeting a specific group.” But officials from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights group, said its purpose was pretty apparent.

“We suspect it’s motivated by a desire to discriminate against Georgia Muslims,” said Edward Ahmed Mitchell, executive director for CAIR-Georgia.

Mitchell, an attorney, told The Washington Post on Wednesday that “in this climate of anti-Muslim bigotry,” a bill that seems to target people of faith could create serious issues. “The bill is a bad solution to a nonexistent problem,” he said.

On Thursday evening, just two days after pre-filing the bill, Spencer announced that he was abandoning it because of the blowback.

“After further consideration, I have decided to not pursue HB 3 in the upcoming 2017 legislative session due to the visceral reaction it has created,” he said in a statement. “While this bill does not contain language that specifically targets any group, I am mindful of the perception that it has created. My objective was to address radical elements that could pose a threat to public safety.”

He added that the proposed legislation would “withstand legal scrutiny, but not political scrutiny.”

Spencer, who represents Woodbine, in the southeastern corner of the state, did not respond to several requests for comment.

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The proposed legislation came to light amid nationwide tension after President-elect Donald Trump made campaign promises to ban Muslims from entering the United States.

Trump has since softened his tone. But CAIR said a spike in incidents targeting Muslims and other minorities became noticeable as Trump’s campaign gained momentum nationally, and the organization has called upon Trump and other national leaders to repudiate “growing Islamophobia.”

As The Post’s Matt Zapotosky reported this week, hate crimes against Muslims spiked last year to their highest level in more than a decade — an increase that experts and advocates say was fueled by anger over terrorist attacks and anti-Islam rhetoric on the campaign trail.

Law enforcement agencies across the country reported 257 anti-Muslim incidents in 2015, up nearly 67 percent from the year before, according to FBI data released Monday.

The last time the FBI recorded more than 160 anti-Muslim incidents was in 2001, when it reported 481. That was the year that Islamist militants attacked the World Trade Center, killing thousands and sparking a wave of anti-Muslim incidents.

Since Trump’s election, a wave of racially and religiously motivated acts of intimidation, violence and harassment have swept the country.

“Do you want to say anything to those people?” Lesley Stahl asked the president-elect on “60 Minutes.”

“I would say don’t do it, that’s terrible, ’cause I’m gonna bring this country together,” Trump said in the interview, which was broadcast Sunday.

“They’re harassing Latinos, Muslims,” Stahl said.

“I am so saddened to hear that. And I say: Stop it,” Trump told her. “If it, if it helps. I will say this, and I will say right to the cameras: Stop it.”

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Georgia’s current anti-masking law states:

A person is guilty of a misdemeanor when he wears a mask, hood, or device by which any portion of the face is so hidden, concealed, or covered as to conceal the identity of the wearer and is upon any public way or public property or upon the private property of another without the written permission of the owner or occupier of the property to do so.

The law does not, however, apply to:

(1) A person wearing a traditional holiday costume on the occasion of the holiday; (2) A person lawfully engaged in trade and employment or in a sporting activity where a mask is worn for the purpose of ensuring the physical safety of the wearer, or because of the nature of the occupation, trade, or profession, or sporting activity; (3) A person using a mask in a theatrical production including use in Mardi gras celebrations and masquerade balls; or (4) A person wearing a gas mask prescribed in emergency management drills and 28 exercises or emergencies.

Mitchell, the CAIR-Georgia director, said the current law could have been used to ban people from wearing veils for religious reasons; but the law has never been applied that way, so CAIR never had a need to challenge it, he said.

Spencer’s proposed amendment would have added “she” to the law’s language, as well as this statement:

For purposes of this subsection, the phrase ‘upon any public way or property’ includes but is not limited to operating a motor vehicle upon any public street, road, or highway.

“The Georgia anti-masking law has been in existence for decades to address credible threats from masked terrorists posed to the public, specifically on Georgia’s public ways and private property,” Spencer said in a statement hours before he abandoned his bill. “These laws were initially enacted to eliminate forms of terrorist threats and discourage violence that anonymity encourages and aid in the apprehension of criminals.”

He added: “This change would bring uniformity and equal applicability, and there is no intention of targeting a specific group.”

However, in an interview with ABC affiliate WSB, Spencer said his bill was “simply a response to constituents that do have concerns of the rise of Islamic terrorism, and we in the state of Georgia do not want our laws used against us.”

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Internationally, laws surrounding Muslim veils are distinct — and very different.

The Post’s Adam Taylor reported last year, for instance, that in Iran and Saudi Arabia, women are required to cover themselves. In some countries across the Middle East and North Africa, women are pressured to do so even when laws do not force them. But in other counties, such as Belgium and France, women are banned from wearing full-face veils, sometimes due to apparent security concerns or an expressed desire to promote inclusion.

When legislation was implemented in France, it ignited widespread controversy.

Taylor reported:

When French lawmakers banned full face coverings, they cited concerns about security and a desire for French citizens to “live together.” However, while most Muslims do not support the wearing of the burqa or the niqab, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks the subject has gained new prominence: Some wonder why the free speech that allowed the satirical newspaper to draw the prophet Muhammad does not also allow a Muslim woman to wear a veil if she wants.

Map: The places where Islamic face veils are banned

On his campaign website, Spencer, the Georgia state representative, says his “current issues” include constitutional conservatism, illegal immigration, transparency and accountability, and the Hidden Predator Act — a bill he sponsored during the 2015-2016 session.

This week, amid the uproar over his latest proposal, Spencer defended the pre-filed bill.

“Protecting the public against credible public safety risks remains a function of the states police powers,” he said in a statement, “and HB 3 underscores this important public policy.”

After Spencer abandoned the bill, CAIR-Georgia’s Mitchell thanked the lawmaker.

“Although the controversy over this legislation has come to a swift and welcome end, we hope to meet with Rep. Spencer in an effort to dialogue, build bridges, and personally thank him for doing the right thing,” Mitchell said in a statement.

“American Muslims may face similar challenges over the next four years,” he added, “but we intend to keep proudly practicing our faith, building bridges with our neighbors, and defending our rights by any legal means necessary.”

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