Legislative Committee Considers Religious Intrusion Bill

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(Update: The committee passed the bill on a 9 to 7 vote. The bill had been amended to give school districts the choice to follow the new law or not. If school districts do choose to follow the edicts in the bill, it will lead to lawsuits and unnecessary religious conflict.)

An Oklahoma legislative committee will consider a bill today that could turn the state’s public schools into bastions of religious turmoil and fundamental Christian extremism.

House Bill 1001, the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act, sponsored by state Rep, Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, would require school districts to treat religious speech the same as secular speech and prevent schools from discriminating against students who submit religious arguments in their homework and other assignments.

The bill also would allow students to express religious ideas in a “limited public forum.”

In essence, the bill would create tension between varying religions on school campuses while undoubtedly privileging the dominant religion here, which, of course, is Christianity. It could lead to unnecessary conflict and lawsuits and could result in unintended consequences, such as the dissemination of information by cults.

The bill would allow students to present illogical and nonacademic ideas in classes, especially science and history courses, and this would dumb down the curriculum and make our students less knowledgeable and competitive than those from other states.

The bill has been presented in the past as a way to prevent religious discrimination, but it’s difficult not to view the bill as a part of the religious right’s quest to bring Christian ideas about evolution and history into the classroom. In his legislative profile, Reynolds is described as “an Ordained Deacon and a member of Southern Hills Baptist Church.” Former Gov. Brad Henry vetoed a similar bill after it passed the House and Senate, but this year Republican Gov. Mary Fallin is governor. Will that make a difference? The bill is modeled after one passed in Texas.

The House Common Education Committee will consider the bill today at 10:30 a.m. in room 412C at the State Capitol.

You can find a list of the committee’s members here.

(I wrote about the bill recently in the Oklahoma Gazette.)

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Fallin, State To Rely On ‘ObamaCare’

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Last April, in the throes of her gubernatorial campaign, Gov. Mary Fallin made her opposition to the new health care reform law, the Affordable Care Act, a major part of her campaign.

In a press release, Fallin said then:

While Brad Henry sits on the sidelines, Drew Edmondson has now refused to join 19 other states in the bipartisan legal challenge to ObamaCare. His lack of leadership has actually forced the Oklahoma Legislature to hire an outside law firm to represent our state in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the bill.

Once governor, Fallin didn’t hesitate to bring legal action against “ObamaCare.” As she told a television interviewer in January:

The new federal health care bill is actually in violation of Oklahoma's constitution because Oklahoma's constitution now has an amendment through the health care freedom amendment that says that no law, no rule shall force Oklahomans, whether it's Oklahomans, businesses or health care providers, to join into a health care system, and that's in direct violation of the Oklahoma constitution. So we're going to challenge it on our own merits as Oklahoma.

So have things changed? Does Fallin no longer believe the law should be scrapped?
According to NewsOK.com, Fallin has decided to accept a $54.6 million grant to help create a health exchange in the state, which is made possible by the Affordable Care Act. Fallin said this about accepting the grant:

After thoroughly reviewing the “early innovator” grant, I am happy to say that the federal assistance we are being offered is consistent with our mission to design and implement an Oklahoma-based health insurance exchange.

That exchange will empower consumers and help individuals and small businesses to shop for and enroll in affordable, quality health insurance plans. This is a step in the right direction for Oklahoma and its citizens.

The health exchanges are designed to help people and businesses find affordable health insurance plans by pooling together, which is a good idea, but how can Fallin reconcile taking money funded by a law she wants overturned? Does this mean she doesn’t think the law will actually be repealed? What if the U.S. Supreme Court eventually rules the law is unconstitutional?

This is more than just typical right-wing hypocrisy. It should remind everyone of the relentless anti-Obama campaign Fallin ran to get elected governor. Was the Obama demonization just a ruse to manipulate the gullible? Now that she’s governor, she’s talking like a politician proudly bringing the pork home when it comes to the new health care law. What has changed?

There are a couple of points to make here. One, the fear mongering about “ObamaCare” is less about the actual law than it is about furthering the political interests of the GOP. People can have honest disagreements over whether people should eventually be mandated to buy health insurance, the most debated part of the law, but it’s hardly “socialism” or whatever label du jour the GOP gives it. A public option for health insurance could solve that issue.

Second, let’s hope this means Fallin plans to govern from the political center, putting the state’s interests above ideology or right-wing campaign rhetoric.

The newspaper story about Fallin and the health exchange grant didn’t thoroughly address the disparity between her anti-Obama/health care reform rhetoric and the way she lauded how the exchanges would “empower consumers.” But, then, that’s to be expected. The newspaper has vehemently opposed the new health care law on its editorial page while also taking advantage of at least one of its provisions.

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Oklahoma’s Wisconsin Issues

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The underlying principle behind so-called “tort reform” here can be seen in what’s going on in Wisconsin and other states when it comes to individual and worker rights.

What’s happening is this: States dominated by Republican legislatures and governors are attacking the rights and livelihoods of ordinary middle-class people—and I mean ALL people, not just state workers—while protecting or enhancing the interests of corporations and wealthy people.

Oklahoma has so far avoided Wisconsin-like protests and political conflict, but that doesn’t mean Republican political leaders here aren’t trying to balance the state budget on the backs of workers and educators or that they aren’t pushing for corporate amnesty when it comes to lawsuits. It also doesn’t mean that people won’t someday stand up here in Oklahoma. (Read about how Oklahoma legislators are trying to do away with collective bargaining.)

The Oklahoma Legislature is considering several bills related to lawsuits. One of the bills would cap noneconomic damages at $250,000. This follows a bill passed in 2009 and signed into law by former Gov. Brad Henry that capped such damages at $400,00, with some exceptions.

The more the government caps lawsuit damages, the less access ordinary people will have to a jury trial if they have been injured because of malfeasance. That’s not even debatable. That’s what GOP leaders here and elsewhere want: fewer lawsuits and less money paid in damages, primarily by insurance companies. But the right to a jury trial is fundamental in this country. It helps create a system of checks and balances. Republicans want to dismantle this system so corporations can go unchecked.

Back in 2006, I wrote this about the “tort reform” movement:

There is no such thing as a “tort reform” movement in Oklahoma or elsewhere. What we have is a movement to reward rich people at the expense of ordinary, middle-class Okies, who, if this movement is successful, will no longer get fully compensated for injuries due to negligence.

. . . There is no such thing as “tort reform.” That phrase is a lie passed around by the Republican Party to make sure rich people get even more money. If you buy into it, you are only hurting yourself and family.

This is as valid today as it was five years ago, with an important caveat. Bit by bit, here and elsewhere, the right to a civil jury trial and fair compensation for individuals has been eroded. Do you think the GOP will stop at a $250,000 cap? What will happen next year or the year after that? What about forbidding all civil lawsuits for damages? Could it go that far?

Another heinous bill dealing with limiting people’s rights would force juries to consider the defendant’s other sources of compensation (health insurance, life insurance, etc.) and subtract that from any damage awards. Thus, a company could well go unchecked for malfeasance because an individual was prudent enough to purchase life insurance.

The Oklahoman editorial page, a longtime advocate for lawsuit caps, recently argued this:

A cap on non-economic damages may result in lower settlements for victims and lower fees for trial lawyers, but the greater good is at stake. States that refuse to limit punitive damages are at a disadvantage in competing with states that have caps. This includes the recruitment and retention of physicians and the image projected to the business community.

Follow the logic here. Everyone else is taking away people’s rights so we should, too, because of the “image projected to the business community.” It’s a race to the bottom for “the greater good.” Also, the medical malpractice argument has always been a red herring. There are ways the government could work to reduce insurance costs for physicians without stripping people of their rights and allowing corporations to go unchecked.

As the corporate apologists build up steam in the state legislature this session, the governor has called for a 3 percent cut in education and social services and a 5 percent cut for other agencies to balance next year’s budget. This will mean more layoffs and furloughs for state workers, who are woefully underpaid already. This will also influence the private sector to pay lower wages and benefits for people. Oklahoma is a low-wage state. There’s not a word, not even a small chirp, about raising taxes on the state’s wealthiest citizens. In fact, the state stands poised to cut income taxes again on Jan. 1, which will primarily benefit the state’s richest people.

Oklahoma has its own “Wisconsin” issue, and it’s happening in Indiana, Ohio and other states. It’s about the continuing transfer of money to the country’s wealthiest citizens at the expense of everyone else. “Tort reform,” or, rather corporate amnesty, is a major part on the GOP assault on the middle class.

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