ATLANTA - State Rep. David Clark, R-Buford, said he will not be forced to take "any unnecessary medical test" after Georgia House Speaker David Ralston ejected him from the House floor Tuesday for refusing to take a COVID-19 test.
Clark hasn’t taken a single test for the virus since the 2021 General Assembly convened on Jan. 11, a violation of rules the House adopted at the start of the session, said Kaleb McMichen, Ralston’s spokesman. The rule requires lawmakers to undergo testing twice a week, whether or not they are at the Georgia Capitol.
"What I will not do is be forced to have a COVID test, or any unnecessary medical test, done without a basis for doing so," Clark said in a statement on Facebook on Tuesday afternoon. "The seat that I hold for District 98 is not my seat, but the people’s seat. I work for you, and I cannot in good conscience watch expensive tests that should be given to Georgia citizens who desperately need them be wasted for nothing more than political optics at the Capitol.
"The CDC has been clear; a symptom-based strategy is more effective than a test-based strategy. With that said, if I had symptoms, I would not hesitate to be tested to protect others."
Speaking with reporters after being escorted off the House floor by Capitol Police, Clark accused Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, of overstepping his authority to limit members of the House from being present in the chamber. He also said the General Assembly’s COVID-19 testing program lacks teeth and is there for show rather than any effective safety practice.
“It’s dumb how we’re doing things telling everybody to do tests to make everybody feel comfortable,” Clark told reporters while not wearing a mask.
In his statement on Facebook, Clark said he wore a mask in the House chamber, had his temperature taken and practiced social distancing.
Ralston, who chastised House members earlier this month for not getting tested as the 2021 legislative session began, again urged members of the state House of Representatives to follow the testing rules.
“I don’t know how long [the coronavirus pandemic] is going to last,” Ralston declared from the House rostrum. “But it behooves us to do whatever we can to be safe … rather than go out there and get media attention for standing up to authority.”
Clark and Ralston have clashed in the past. Clark introduced a resolution two years ago calling on the speaker to resign, charging Ralston – a lawyer - with abusing his power by taking advantage of legislative leave policies to delay court cases on behalf of clients accused of various violent crimes.
The flap led to the passage of legislation tightening the rules governing when a legislator who is a lawyer can obtain a delay in a case citing his or her legislative duties.
On Tuesday, Ralston said he’s simply looking out for the health and safety of House members during a pandemic that has killed nearly 12,000 Georgians.
“I’ve been to too many funerals,” he said. “I get tired of going to them.”
But, Clark indicated he felt the Georgia Department of Public Health's resources were being misused by making legislators go through testing.
"At this time, the DPH focuses (should be) on the much-needed vaccinations, and unnecessary testing takes away resources for that initiative," he said on Facebook.
The speaker's move received the backing of the leaders of the Republicans and Democrats in the House on Tuesday afternoon. House Majority Leader Jon Burns, R-Newington, and House Minority Leader James Beverly, D-Macon, addressed the issue in a joint statement.
“We strongly support Speaker David Ralston in his efforts to preserve and protect the health and safety of the members and staff of the House of Representatives and all those who enter the doors of the Georgia State Capitol," they said in the statement.
"We agree that all members of the House of Representatives should comply with the testing procedures that have been implemented for their safety and the safety of their fellow Georgians.”
State Rep. Sam Park, D-Lawrenceville, said he is hoping for a quick resolution to the issue. Park is the chairman of the Gwinnett House Delegation.
"I appreciate Speaker Ralston for doing everything in his power to keep every member safe, and I hope David does comply with the rules and take a test," Park said.
Park explained that he sees the tests as being important for protecting members of the legislature. He pointed out that there are members of the Georgia House who fall in categories that are considered more vulnerable to getting the disease.
"We have vulnerable members, those who are over 65-years-old (and) one of our (Gwinnett) colleagues, newly elected Rep. Rebecca Mitchell, she's pregnant," Park said. "We just want to do everything possible to keep all of our members safe."
While Ralston was enforcing the COVID-19 testing rule in the House, Georgia Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan returned to the upper legislative chamber Tuesday after quarantining since testing positive two weeks ago. He urged lawmakers to comply with the twice-weekly testing requirement both the House and Senate have adopted.
“You’re all too valuable to have someone slip up and pass on [the virus] unknowingly,” Dugan, R-Carrollton, said from the Senate floor.
McMichen said Clark will be allowed to return to the House chamber upon complying with the testing policy.
— Staff Writer Curt Yeomans contributed to this report