ATLANTA -- Hundreds of child advocates filled the Capitol on Monday in support of legislation they say would treat young girls and boys involved in prostitution as victims, not criminals.
But Christian groups have come out against the Republican-backed measure, saying it would legalize juvenile prostitution and just make the problem worse.
Sen. Renee Unterman, of Buford, is sponsoring the law, which would set the minimum age at 16 for prosecuting sex-for-hire.
''When you're 12 years old and you're laying on your back, you are not a criminal,'' Unterman said. ''You don't even know what sex is.''
The legal age of consent in Georgia is 16. Unterman says she was encouraged by the 500 supporters, who each held a single white rose.
The nonprofit Juvenile Justice Fund estimates that 200 to 300 children are serving as prostitutes in Atlanta each month. The children's backgrounds typically include chaotic home lives, abuse, acting out in school and expulsion, poverty, running away and being ''rescued'' by men who later pimp them.
Ex-mayor Shirley Franklin made the issue a centerpiece of her administration and launched the ''Dear John'' campaign to raise awareness about child prostitution after a study revealed that Atlanta has a thriving adult entertainment industry and has been identified as a hub for prostitution and has developed a national reputation as a sex tourism destination.
Unterman has been active in the campaign to end child prostitution in Atlanta and she says she is encouraged by newly elected Mayor Kasim Reed's support on the issue.
Jennifer Swain, state coordinator of A Future Not A Past, said the bill keeps child protection at the forefront.
''We want to be consistent with the laws on the books,'' Swain said. ''There's no such thing as a child prostitute. If a child can't consent until 16, how can they be charged for prostitution?''
Swain said the solution is providing services instead of arresting young children.
Unterman said social pressure, along with legislation, will be needed to change the situation in Atlanta. She praised the state for funding a system to rehabilitate and provide therapy to children trading sex for money.
Georgia Christian Coalition President Jerry Luquire called the bill ''horrible,'' but said it opens the door for discussion on the issue now that ''teenage prostitute'' has become acceptable language.
Unterman says the bill does not decriminalize prostitution but aims to make people aware that young children are not responsible for sexual acts and need rehabilitation and therapy, not jail time.