House Speaker Philip Gunn, author of HB 1523
Photo by Imani Khayyam.
In interviews about House Bill 1523, several lawyers and legal scholars have explained that is close to irrefutable that the law is unconstitutional on several counts. What does not make sense, however, is why and how Republican lawmakers are pandering to voters with misinformation on a religious-liberty crusade to pass legislation they must also know to be unconstitutional.
Let's not forget that both House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, and Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, are attorneys. They went to law school and likely know full well what seven law professors said in a memo last week: The bill violates the Establishment Clause by favoring a Christian religious belief and view over other potential religious views. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" is a part of the First Amendment right they propose that the bill protects.
While lawmakers, especially those who are attorneys, must know that the bill is unconstitutional, they went ahead and pushed it through on what some opposed lawmakers called a "rocket docket," and the governor went right along with the plan. They know it will be challenged in court, and legal scholars have said there is no way it will stand. So why do it? Why waste precious legislative time and energy on a bill that does nothing and everything at once? (Read page 10 story for more specifics).
It's a political charade. Lawmakers are pandering to what they know are their constituents' deepest fears. By acting like their constituents' religious freedom is at stake or under threat by the Obergefell same-sex marriage ruling, lawmakers exploit that fear and turn it into political currency.
Yes, lawmakers are already thinking about Election Year 2019 and trolling for a certain kind of vote. The campaign slogans will read, "I fought for your religious liberty—and will continue to do so." What they won't say is how many taxpayer dollars they wasted defending lawsuits that come from these bad bills—taxpayer dollars that could be spent on the state's infrastructure, education, child care, or hey, economic development that seems to be fleeing in the opposite direction this past week.
The part of House Bill 1523 that Republican leaders know scares voters so much isn't even necessary. What lawmakers failed to say throughout the entire "Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination" debate—and their ensuing attacks on the media for quoting them—is that your religious freedom is already protected. And if you didn't think the First Amendment was strong enough, this state passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act two years ago. Bakeries already aren't forced to bake wedding cakes; churches aren't forced to hold weddings.
So half the bill is useless. The other part is blatantly unconstitutional and has caused a national outcry, thrusting our state into the spotlight once again for nothing we should be proud of. Make no mistake, this is not about religious freedom. This is about getting votes in 2019 because they "tried."