Domestic violence survivors and their advocates celebrated last year's Louisiana legislative session, which passed a comprehensive package of bills addressing assault, protective orders, punitive damages and firearm possession in domestic violence cases. State Rep. Helena Moreno and state Sen. J.P. Morrell, both Democrats from New Orleans, led the charge in their respective chambers. During this year's session, which begins April 13, Moreno and Morrell aim to strengthen that legislation — and tackle sexual assault and sex education in Orleans Parish public schools.
Morrell's first pre-filed bill, Senate Bill 31, amends current laws on sex education to allow New Orleans public schools to survey students anonymously for "risk behaviors, including those related to sexual health." Currently, public elementary and secondary schools offer sex education through biology or physical education classes, but students are prohibited from "being tested, quizzed or surveyed about their personal beliefs or practices in sex, morality or religion."
"We haven't had success doing it statewide, so we're doing a local option," Morrell told Gambit, adding that New Orleans' high rates of HIV and teen pregnancy indicate a change is needed. State Rep. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, also is filing a sex education bill in the House.
Morrell and Moreno — along with gubernatorial candidate state Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite — previewed their legislation at a March 18 meeting in New Orleans hosted by the Independent Women's Organization (IWO). Edwards, a practicing Catholic, chastised Catholic bishops who oppose comprehensive sex education in public schools (despite Catholic schools often incorporating it into their curricula).
"We need to be grown up and responsible about this," he said, adding that he hopes the legislation will survive Gov. Bobby Jindal and the conservative religious group Louisiana Family Forum. "Jindal has given the Family Forum a de facto veto on anything," Edwards said.
Moreno's domestic violence package will strengthen laws against stalking by adding firearm restrictions to offenders; adding penalties to people who violate protective orders; and protecting domestic violence victims from eviction. Moreno also will address the medical bills that rape victims often face after emergency exams are performed. Moreno wants to use unclaimed winnings from casino slot machines and racetracks to augment the existing reparation fund for victims. With those monies, Moreno estimates the fund could collect $2.3 million a year, with federal funds adding an additional $1.5 million.
"Men in the South like to think we honor our women and practice chivalry," Edwards said. "Then why is it so hard to be a woman in Louisiana?"
The legislators also want to push for Medicaid expansion in the state, as well as equal pay for women, though Morrell said (and the others agreed) "wrongheadedness is so entrenched" throughout the rest of the state. On passing an equal pay bill, Edwards said, "I'm not sure why it's so hard. ... There's a disconnect between what the people of Louisiana want and what legislators are willing to do."