Georgia: The Christian Coalition, State Senator Renee Unterman & the Fight over Child Prostitution
By Jim Galloway
Atlanta Journal Constitution | February 3, 2010
For 12 years, she has carried the water for social conservatives in the Legislature. That “choose life” license plate? Her work. The state’s requirement that doctors offer women a sonogram before abortions? Her work.
For the last several years, Unterman has focused on child prostitution. Atlanta, you may already know, is a national capital in the trading of young flesh. …
Unterman was surprised on Monday when she was all but declared a lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Pimps and Sex Brokers — which, so far as we know, is a fictional organization. But you can never tell.
The accusations came via the senator’s friends in the Christian conservative movement. At issue is SB 304, Unterman’s bill to declare that boys and girls under age 16 shouldn’t be charged with prostitution, but diverted to treatment or therapy. (Another less likely bill, HB 582, would set the age of prosecution at 18.)
Unterman’s measure is an attempt to bring a certain legal and moral consistency to Georgia law. Sixteen is the age of sexual consent in Georgia. If a child can’t consent to sex, how can he/she consent to prostitution? State law also declares that children under age 18, if caught up in anti-prostitution sweeps, are to be tallied as victims of both human trafficking and child abuse. Not criminals.
There is also the practical consideration. “You put handcuffs on a 12-year-old kid, put them in the back of a police car, they shut up just like that,” Unterman said. “But if you get them into therapy, they never have those handcuffs put on them — they’re more apt to talk about the gang and what the gang is doing to them.”
Opponents are having none of it. They praise Unterman and say they share the same goal. But they want the senator to walk away from what they say is a wrong-headed bill.
Passage, they said at that Monday news conference, would amount to the decriminalization — nay, the legalization — of prostitution. Predators will swarm to the state.
“Who will benefit from the passage of [the legislation]? I’ll tell you who — the very profitable and growing pedophile industry,” said Nancy Schaefer, Unterman’s former colleague in the Senate.
Spare-the-rod arguments were plentiful. “The threat of arrest, public humiliation and a police record has scared straight many minors and adults,” said Sue Ella Deadwyler, who writes a Christian conservative newsletter. “Arrest is a valuable life-saving tool that must continue.”
Those lined up against Unterman’s legislation include the Georgia Christian Alliance, the Georgia Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, and the Georgia Baptist Convention.
Other religious groups are staying out of the fight, and many have taken Unterman’s side. Presbyterians, for instance. But they are not organizations that sway votes in Republican primaries.
Unterman’s once-skittish GOP colleagues in the Senate are skittish again. House Speaker David Ralston thinks the language has gotten out of hand. “I don’t agree it’s decriminalization,” the speaker said. But neither would he commit to the legislation.
One of many ways to survive at the state Capitol is to view the place as a theater that combines tragedy, comedy and farce in equal measure.
Speeding toward House passage is HB 897, sponsored by Rep. Doug Collins (R-Gainesville), a bill to close the loophole that has permitted high school teachers to avoid criminal prosecution for their affairs with students — if the student is above the age of consent.
So by this spring, the Legislature could declare that a girl over the age of 16 legally lacks the judgment to enter into a romance with the aging Lothario who heads the math department. Many might call that a sound decision. But lawmakers, through their silence, could also declare that a girl under the age of 16 should be held to criminal account when shoved into a bed by her pimp.
The author of that teacher-student bill sees the gap in logic. “I’m a pastor and I have no problem with the [Unterman] bill,” Collins said.