Fed up with what he sensed was a religious undertone dominating issues in the Arkansas legislature, Rep. Buddy Blair introduced a nonbinding resolution asking colleagues to reaffirm the separation of church and state.
"I've never seen a session like this before," said Blair, who served 12 years in the legislature during the 1980s and returned to the house in 2003. "There's a meanness to it that I don't understand. After Bush's reelection, it's the Right flexing their muscles."
So far in 2005, the Arkansas house has been a conservative launching pad for legislation that some view as attempts to single out and punish lifestyles, behavior, or status that are outside the Bible Belt mainstream. The list includes bills to prohibit unmarried cohabiting adults from adopting children or serving as foster parents, to banish from school textbooks definitions of marriage other than between a man and a woman, and to make it illegal for a female under 18 to get an abortion without a parent's or guardian's consent.
The house and senate also have passed legislation authorizing a state "In God We Trust" license plate.
Democratic representative Roy Ragland said much of the legislation reflects the values of the people, who gave President Bush 54% of the vote in the November election, passed an anti-gay marriage amendment 74%-26%, and gave 44% of the vote to a U.S. Senate candidate who ran primarily on an anti-gay marriage and anti-immigration agenda.
"I don't believe you can say that it started here with conservatives in the legislature. It started with the conservative nature of the people of Arkansas as a defensive measure, not wanting other people's standards to be forced on them," said Ragland, an economic development executive who also is pastor of Welcome Home Church in a small community of the same name.
Ragland said his religious beliefs do shape his positions on legislation, but no more so than any other of his life experiences. He sponsored the bill banning any textbook definition of marriage that is contrary to Arkansas's new constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Under the constitution now, marriage is defined as only a union between one man and one woman. It previously enjoyed that definition only under state law. The textbook bill has stalled in the senate education committee.
The Arkansas senate traditionally has been the more moderate chamber. This session, the education committee voted down legislation supported by Republican governor Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister, to make the children of undocumented immigrants eligible for state-funded scholarships and in-state tuition at Arkansas colleges and universities.
The senate also has passed legislation authorizing state police to enforce federal immigration laws on interstate highways in the state, a measure roundly denounced by Arkansas's growing Hispanic population.
Republican senator Jim Holt, the sponsor of the immigration bills in the senate and also the senate sponsor of the house adoptions bill that originally intended to bar gays from parenting children in state custody, said he felt a moral imperative and patriotic duty to protect children and reserve costly state human services programs for Arkansas citizens.
"It's what's moral. It's what's just. That's what we're here for. It's not about any type of prejudice, but rather it's about priorities," said Holt, who drew scathing criticism from fellow Republican Huckabee, who called "ungodly" Holt's bill that would cut off prenatal care for pregnant illegal immigrants.
Holt was the little-known Christian conservative who garnered a surprising vote total against incumbent U.S. senator Blanche Lincoln while running almost exclusively on an anti-gay marriage, anti-illegal immigration platform. "I'm going to stay the course," said Holt, who has said he will run for lieutenant governor next year. "I'm going to keep fighting for what I believe is just--and what most Arkansans believe is just."
Blair said not all Arkansans share that mood. "There are a lot of thinking people out there who are concerned about what we're doing," he said.
Rich Huddleston, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, decried the need for a broad public discourse on social consciousness. "What we really need to have is a public debate in this state," he said. "Are we going to be for all children and families, or are we only going to be for the groups that look like us or act like us?" (AP)