By Will Hall, Baptist Message executive editor
BATON ROUGE, La. (LBM) – The 2021 Louisiana Legislative Session was designated a budget session, so each lawmaker was limited to submitting five bills each that did not deal with state finances. However, it was those other bills, most involving vices, that seemed to dominate headlines across the state.
Rep. Mandie Landry (D) of Orleans Parish, submitted H.B. 67 which would have legalized prostitution, elevating it to the same status as any line of work in the state. Witnesses in support of the bill mocked “morals” and urged members of House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee “not to look to your pastor” for guidance about prostitution.
But opponents argued that legalizing prostitution would contribute to more human trafficking and greater exploitation of sex workers – because the bill also decriminalized “pimping” and brothels and these two activities are used to keep women captive in sex trafficking.
In the end, Landry voluntarily withdrew her bill when it became apparent from comments by committee members that it was going to be voted down.
Meanwhile, the House soundly defeated a resolution (H.R. 136) by that committee’s chairman, Rep. Ted James (D), to create a commission to study the benefits of legalizing prostitution (35 yeas-62 nays-8 absentees).
Sponsors of two riverboat gambling bills, S.B. 213 and H.B. 497 (later, H.B. 702 was adopted as a substitute), each seeking to place a casino in Slidell, framed the issue as “a local matter” and the right for voters to decide.
However, a strong contingent from Slidell spoke at each committee hearing, rebuffing both measures as allowing wealthier areas of St. Tammany Parish to avoid having the casino in their respective backyards and yet reap tax benefits from forcing Slidell to accept the casino; and they cited the example of Rep. Richard Nelson (R) to make their point. Nelson was noted in local newspapers for having opposed a proposed boutique hotel and conference center (with an undercurrent discussion of a riverboat casino) in Mandeville, where he lives. On the other hand, he told nola.com that he was “not going to stand in the way of people voting” on putting a riverboat casino in Slidell, 20 miles away from his home.
Moreover, there were charges of conflict of interest against Sen. Gary Smith (D), chairman of Senate Judiciary B Committee and a member of First Baptist Church, Norco. The Advocate reported that he cast the tie-breaking vote in his committee to approve S.B. 213, instead of recusing himself due to his wife being a paid lobbyist for the measure.
The bill subsequently was recommitted to the Senate Finance Committee. Meanwhile, Smith voted also for H.B. 702, again, despite an apparent ethics breach because of his wife serving as a gambling lobbyist, in a 4-3 vote that moved that bill favorably to the Senate Finance Committee.
S.B. 213 did not make the agenda in the Senate Finance Committee. However, this committee did take up H.B. 702 and voted 5-4 to move it favorably to the full Senate, where it was approved by a vote of 23–14-1. It already had passed the House, and now awaits the governor’s signature.
Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R), a presumed candidate for the 2023 governor’s race, sponsored S.B. 213 in the Senate, and Rep. Mary Dubuisson (R) authored H.B. 702 in the House.
The pot lobby pushed multiple measures to the 2021 legislature seeking to: tax raw marijuana (H.B. 434); legalize recreational marijuana (H.B. 524, and substitute, H.B. 699); allow pot smoking as “medical” marijuana (H.B. 391); tax raw pot as “medical” marijuana (H.B. 514); reduce the criminal penalties (no jail, but fines) for first time and subsequent violators in possession of 14 or fewer grams of pot (H.B. 652); legalize the cultivation, manufacture and retail sale of marijuana (H.B. 709); and study “the impact of legalizing the possession and use of cannabis on the citizens of this state” for the purposes of discovering best practices for regulating the sale of marijuana (H.R. 1).
Rep. Richard Nelson’s (R) attempts to legalize and tax recreational marijuana failed in the House — H.B. 699 was allowed to expire by calendar, and H.B. 434 was defeated by a vote of 47-49-9.
Legislators stripped the proposed tax on “medical” marijuana from the broader sales tax bill, H.B. 514. However, both chambers passed H.B. 391 (House, 75-18-12; Senate, 23-14-1), which legalizes smoking pot for “medical” purposes, and it is now awaiting disposition on the desk of Gov. John Bel Edwards (D).
Gov. Edwards signed H.B. 652, authored by Rep. Cedric Glover (D), into law as Act 247, which allows only fines for possession of 14 or fewer grams of pot, but jail time and higher fines for a second conviction of possession of more than 14 grams of pot (with the possibility of 8 years of hard labor and fines up to $5,000 for a fourth and subsequent conviction for possession of this amount).
The House denied Rep Candace Newell’s attempt (H.B. 709) to legalize the sale of marijuana and to tax those sales (34-62-9). However, members approved H.R. 1 (63-28), sponsored by Rep. Marcus Bryant (D), that will create a group of stakeholders to study legalization and bring recommendations to the legislature in 2022 about how to implement the sale and taxation of marijuana.
Sen. Beth Mizell (R), Senate president pro tempore and a member of First Baptist Church, Franklinton, authored S.B. 156 “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act” as an attempt to level the playing field for women athletes. In short, the measure prevents biological males (as transgender women) from playing on women’s sports teams.
The bill is a response against the H.R. 5 “Equality Act” submitted in the U.S. Congress that would allow biological males to compete as females. It was passed at the federal level by the House and is awaiting a vote in the Senate.
However, an executive mandate promoting transgender rights by President Joe Biden (D) calls for a review of federal policies that likely will produce the same result as passage of H.R. 5.
The Louisiana Senate passed Mizell’s measure to guard against males on female teams, 29-6-4, and the House, too, 78-19-8. However, Gov. Edwards has threatened to veto the bill.
Rep. Danny McCormick (R), a member of Trees Baptist Church in Vivian, sponsored a resolution to express the legislature’s intentions regarding executive order violations that involve the exercise of constitutionally protected religious liberties.
Specifically, the measure will suspend for 14 months “all criminal penalties and restrictions related to religious assembly.”
Will Hall, director of the Louisiana Baptist Office of Public Policy testified that the bill was “a common sense” measure for de-escalation in potentially tense situations.
Speaking to the Senate Judiciary C Committee, Hall said that Gov. Edwards and his staff reached out to Louisiana Baptists and other faith communities during the pandemic when the governor was formulating his policy on public safety measures and that he was receptive to inputs.
But Hall said H.C.R. 5 is needed to deal with impasses that could erupt during emergency orders, and he cited the conflict between the mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, and Temple Baptist Church as an example. Hall said the mayor of that town, who had banned in-person worship services, felt disrespected because the congregation held “drive-in” services where everyone stayed in their cars but parked in the church parking lot listening to the broadcast of worship services. Consequently, the mayor had the town police fine each of the vehicle occupants $500 for violating his emergency order against religious assemblies, although the Mississippi governor had declared churches to be “essential services.”
“By simply taking the penalties out of the equation, as this bill does regarding violations of an executive order, you’re offering cool-headed people an opportunity to de-escalate a situation,” Hall offered.
He also referred to the many necessary face-to-face ministries that churches had to continue during the pandemic, including addiction counselling, filling basic needs of families (distribution of food and hygiene products) as well as conducting disaster relief efforts in response to three hurricanes and two other major storms.
Hall said churches were not being defiant but were trying to comply with the emergency order while providing essential services to meet critical needs in the state.
Judiciary C moved McCormick’s resolution favorably without a single objection. Both chambers voted for the measure (67-20-18; 23-13-2), but not without at least one strong objection.
Sen. Jay Luneau (D), a member of Calvary Baptist Church, Alexandria, spoke against H.C.R. 5 on the Senate floor, arguing that the measure, “tells churches that they don’t have to follow the rules that everyone else has to follow,” citing the Bible passage to “render under Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”
“So why aren’t the churches willing to follow these same rules that everybody else has to follow?” Luneau questioned. “I think that instead of trying to pass this resolution that says they don’t have to follow the laws, they should be the first ones to stand up and say we are God-fearing, Christian people and we are going to follow the laws and we are going to set the example for everybody else.”
WOMEN, CHILDREN, FAMILIES
Rep. Mike Johnson (R), a member of First Baptist Church, Pineville, and Rep. Raymond Crews (R), a member of First Baptist Church, Bossier City, presented measures that offered greater protections to women and children.
Crews authored H.B. 357, which enhances protections for young women by increasing the reporting requirements about minors who undergo abortions. There were 15 or so major changes to the present law, but three of the most critical of these hold abortionists accountable for (1) reporting sexual abuse, (2) documenting complications that result from an abortion, and (3) ensuring that a minor is mature enough to give consent to an abortion. H.B. 357 passed both chambers (73-28-4; 36-2) and awaits disposition by the governor.
Johnson’s H.B. 125 ensures that children’s interests will be protected by mandating that “support enforcement services are … provided by [Department of Children and Family Services] on behalf of the child involved” in any paternity action, support obligation situation, and any change to a court-ordered manner of payment of support. His bill passed both chambers without a single “no” vote and was signed into law as Act 11 by the governor.
Additionally, Johnson was lauded in a press release by Louisiana Right to Life for working behind the scenes to “lead the effort to secure an $11,946,139 increase for foster care board rates, adoption subsidies, and guardianship subsidies, the first such increases in 15 years,” bringing the state “much closer to the southern average for foster care and adoption support.”
LOUISIANA BAPTIST INFLUENCE
Mizell and Sen. Heather Cloud (R) offered measures that renewed the authorizations for two tasks forces created largely in response to two resolutions passed by Louisiana Baptists (2015: protecting children from pornography; 2017: promoting premarital counseling and reconciliation counsel).
Mizell’s S.C.R. 68 extends the life of the Task Force on Benefits of Marriage and Incentives for Premarital and Pre-divorce Counseling. Meanwhile Cloud’s S.C.R. 195 renews the authorization of the Task Force on Protecting Children from Exposure to Pornography. Both task forces include a Louisiana Baptist Convention representative in their memberships. Neither task force was able to meet during the pandemic, thus leaving their work, started in 2019, incomplete.
VIOLENCE OVER DOMESTIC ABUSE
In perhaps the most bizarre incident of the legislative session, Rep. Malinda White (D), a member of First Baptist Church, Bogalusa, allegedly threatened gun violence and grabbed Rep. Alan Seabaugh (R ), a member of Broadmoor Baptist Church, Shreveport, in a dispute about wording in White’s domestic abuse bill, H.B. 159. The episode, which included shouting by White, interrupted proceedings on the floor of the House, June 9, until other lawmakers intervened.
According to theadvocate.com, Seabaugh had recommended changing the phrase “household member” to “family member” because of legal differences between the two terms, and he suggested White did not understand because she was not an attorney.
White said that “triggered” her and confessed that she made comments in the heat of the moment that she should not have made. However, she did not admit to threatening Seabaugh with gun violence.
However, Seabaugh told state police that White said “either, ‘I’m going to get my gun and finish this,’ or, ‘Let me get my gun and we’ll finish this.’”
The next day White pulled her legislation from consideration and apologized to House members.