Indiana’s legislature passes a “religious freedom” act that practically invites individuals and businesses to discriminate against gay people.
A firestorm breaks out, particularly in Indianapolis, a midsize city with big-city pretensions: Suddenly the NCAA, which moved its headquarters there in 1999, makes rumbling noises; other national businesses talk of boycotts; pressure builds rapidly.
Within days, Gov. Mike Pence claims the law he signed is being “misinterpreted” by the media and there certainly was no intent to discriminate against anyone. A quick fix is passed, specifically saying the law does not allow such discrimination.
The Kansas Legislature passes a “welfare reform” act that sharply cuts benefits and lists some 35 activities that welfare money designed to help families with children cannot be spent on, including cruises and admission to swimming pools and sporting events.
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A firestorm breaks out. Once again, Kansas’ state government is the object of scorn and ridicule. An Eagle editorial accurately calls the Legislature’s action “cruel, petty and clueless.” In defense, Phyllis Gilmore, head of the Department for Children and Families, skimming by truth claims: “No one is banning a low-income family from going to the swimming pool.” Gov. Sam Brownback signs the bill.
The Tennessee House of Representatives passes a law declaring “The Holy Bible” – no version or edition specified – the official state book of Tennessee, giving it, by a vote of 55-38, status equal to the state salamander and the state rock.
A firestorm breaks out. But it quickly fades, as Senate leaders, noting that the Tennessee Constitution’s separation-of-church-and-state language is even more specific than the U.S. Constitution’s, promptly deep-six the bill.
There had been vigorous debate in the Tennessee House chamber. One member suggested the obvious, that simply designating “The Holy Bible” might run into constitutional problems. His solution: Designate Andrew Jackson’s Bible. This was quickly challenged by two other lawmakers, one suggesting Elvis’ Bible, the other Davy Crockett’s Bible. The bill’s supporters, rather than recognizing the satire that had sat down beside them and dropping the whole matter, sternly rejected those amendments, 48-41, and passed the original: “The Holy Bible,” no worry what that might mean, or about the constitutions.
These actions, disparate in their objectives and results, share characteristics besides sloppy draftsmanship.
▪ Each reflected legislators’ zeal to put ideology ahead of both common sense and sensitivity to others.
▪ So, naturally, all three had unforeseen, unfortunate consequences.
▪ Which, having been called to the legislators’ attention, resulted in vapid rationalizations and thin protestations of innocence.
Much of the Kansas misadventure could have been avoided with a little legislative restraint. The law may, over time and after some suffering by innocent people, get a few of them back into the job market. But the included listing of prohibited spending, apparently reflecting several legislators’ favorite Ronald Reaganesque anecdotes about welfare cheats (remember his Cadillac-driving welfare queen?), was patronizing, unnecessary and unenforceable.
Who can know which dollar – a state one or a private one – was spent for a swim, or a beer for that matter? And why, other than flexing ideological muscle or harassing “the takers,” should such micromanagement warrant legislative attention?
And what conclusion should be drawn when three legislatures in the hands of conservative, small-government proponents vote to impose members’ religious and social beliefs on everyone?
Davis Merritt, a Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.