The next time you hear a Louisiana legislator praise or cite the U.S. Constitution, keep in mind recent and ongoing antics in Baton Rouge. The state House of Representatives last week refused to remove laws from the books that already had been declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, and it is poised to enact a brand-new law that is sure to suffer the same fate.
House Bill 12 by State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, would have removed from the state's criminal code our archaic sodomy laws, which were declared unconstitutional nearly a decade ago. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar Texas sodomy statute in 2003, and two years later the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals dealt the same fate to Louisiana's sodomy statute. Nevertheless, Louisiana's sodomy laws (effectively criminalizing consensual oral and anal sex) remain on the books, despite the fact they cannot be enforced. A House committee had approved Smith's bill and sent it to a vote of the full House, but it went down in flames on a lopsided 27-66 vote April 15.
The chief opponents to removing the unconstitutional language were, of course, the Louisiana Family Forum and those legislators who are perpetually under its spell. "We're not here to rubber stamp the Supreme Court," said state Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs — as if the Louisiana Legislature had the authority to affirm or overrule a case decided by the nation's highest court. Kudos to local legislators who had the sense — and the courage — to vote for Smith's legislation: Reps. Jeff Arnold, Austin Badon, Wesley Bishop, Jared Brossett, Walt Leger III, Helena Moreno and Ebony Woodruff. Unfortunately, they could not carry the day, and Louisiana was the object of another round of embarrassing national headlines.
Meanwhile, as unwilling as some lawmakers are to get rid of unconstitutional laws, many are only too willing to enact a new unconstitutional law. State Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, filed House Bill 503, which would make a particular early 16th-century copy of the King James Version of the Bible (the oldest Bible in the Louisiana State Museum's collection) the official state book of Louisiana. No other state has seen fit to designate the Bible (in any version) as its official state book, though Alabama has designated an 1853 King James Version as its "official state Bible" and used it for ceremonial purposes.
Carmody's bill immediately ran into problems during a committee hearing when state Rep. Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro, pointed out that his Catholic Bible did not mirror the one in the state museum's collection. Woodruff correctly noted that Louisianans have many religioans and suggested making all books of faith the official state book — a well-intentioned maneuver that was shot down. The House Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs Committee amended Carmody's bill to make "the Holy Bible" the official state book and then voted 8-5 to forward it to the full House. The measure was scheduled for debate on Monday, April 21.
Carmody says his original bill wouldn't violate the U.S. Constitution because it doesn't establish a state religion, but constitutional jurisprudence also prohibits government actions that favor one religion over another. Carmody's bill clearly favors Christianity, and it certainly would be challenged in court if it were to become law. Our state faces many serious crises, and lawmakers have far better things to do than to enact clearly unconstitutional laws — particularly when taxpayers have to pay to defend them in court.
Rod Dreher, a national columnist (and Louisiana native) wrote in The American Conservative that Carmody's bill "is the kind of stupidity that gives us a bad name." He added that he would have voted against the measure "not only because it insults one's intelligence, but also for the practical reason that the state has better things to do than to set itself up for a lawsuit it can't win."
Some have suggested that a better official state book for Louisiana would be John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, but here's another idea: The U.S. Constitution is available in inexpensive paperback editions. It's also free online and in apps that can be downloaded to a smartphone or a tablet. It's one of the finest documents ever written by Americans, and it's the bedrock of our freedoms. If lawmakers want to thump the Bible, they should resign their posts and go into ministry. If they prefer government, they'd do better to make the U.S. Constitution Louisiana's official book — because it's clear that too many of them aren't familiar with it.