Two days after thousands of student-led citizens of Louisiana – and millions across the nation – held the “March for Our Lives”, demanding stricter gun laws in the wake of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas school shootings in Parkland, Florida, a Louisiana Senate committee took up two bills filed in response to that tragedy. Both were prime examples of legislative disconnect.
The first bill, SB 178 by Sen. Mike Walsworth (R-West Monroe) would allow students to carry bulletproof backpacks to school.
“Our kids need to know they can protect themselves,” Walsworth explained, “And this allows parents to protect their kids.”
The backpacks, which cost between $100 and $300 each, are a 180-degree turnaround from previous law, and rules imposed by many school districts. In the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, districts began requiring students to carry clear backpacks, which can be purchased for $10-$20. And in 2014, the legislature passed a law prohibiting the wearing of body armor on school property.
“Do we want to do this? No,” Walsworth said of his bill. “We don’t want to think our kids are in danger. But in Florida, in what’s regarded as a very safe neighborhood, that didn’t save 17 children. This will allow parents to protect their child.”
The bill was advanced to the full Senate, without objection.
Next up was SB 406 by Sen. Neil Riser. It would let school principals recruit volunteer security for their schools – retired teachers or former military or law enforcement personnel who have concealed carry permits.
“Deadly force requires deadly force,” Riser said. “Now, with schools being ‘gun-free zones’, there’s nothing stopping these individuals. We have to be able to protect our kids from these domestic terrorists!”
Sen. Fred Mills (R-Parks) asked about the numerous statements and advisories from law enforcement, cautioning that responding to an active shooter requires consistent and frequent training.
“Do you think someone should have to have active shooter training before they fire to defend themselves? You have a right to protect your life with deadly force,” Riser replied. “Someone who has been in the military or law enforcement should meet the criteria. A veteran has been trained in active combat.”
The NRA, the Louisiana Shooting Association, and the Louisiana Family Forum filed cards in support of the measure.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police, Louisiana Association of Educators, United Way of Acadiana, Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families, and many others filed cards in opposition.
Sen. Troy Carter (D-New Orleans) moved to defer the bill, over its author’s objections.
“Thank you for trying to do what you think in your heart is right. Respectfully, I disagree,” Carter told Riser. “Numerous studies show past experience is not enough, and that proficiency declines without regular training. What does that translate to? Friendly fire kills innocent bystanders. This isn’t the answer.”
“Think about what we have right now – nuthin’,” Riser remonstrated. “Nuthin’.”
The bill was killed, on a vote of 4-3.
In another Senate committee, J.P. Morrell (D-New Orleans) was attempting to update the state’s marriage and family laws.
“Recommended by the Louisiana Law Institute, SB 98 changes marriage and family law, removing gender language to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges,” Morrell explained. “It simply changes the wording to ‘spouses’ from ‘husband and wife’, and from ‘mother and father’ to ‘parents’.”
But the executive director of the Louisiana Family Forum, Rev. Gene Mills, was having none of it.
“What this bill does is redefine marriage, changes it from being between a man and a woman to being between two natural persons,” Mills said. “SB 98 creates a collision course between the First Amendment and its guaranteed right of religious liberty, and Obergefell‘s created right of sexual license.
“In 2004, more than 609-thousand Louisiana voters went to the polls – 78% of our voting public – and clearly expressed their belief that marriage is between one man and one woman. Enforcing a law because of a Supreme Court decision should not diminish Louisiana’s appropriate use of its definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman. Louisiana law reflects an expression that is the will of this state and its voting population, and I think it’s important that we continue to echo that, as a useful educational and historical state perspective. Louisiana law should reflect Louisiana values, not a definition that’s imposed by a judicial body from Elsewhere, U.S.A.”
Sen. Jay Luneau (D-Alexandria), an attorney, disagreed with the reverend’s version of the law.
“Mr. Mills, I don’t agree with you on your interpretations of what the Supreme Court’s decision said. And I can tell you that what I believe to be some of the brightest legal minds in the state of Louisiana, that serve on the Law Institute, feel totally contrary to what you’re sitting here telling us today.
“I would remind you of ‘Render unto Caesar’. You know, we live in this country and we’re part of this country and we have to abide by the decisions of the Court, whether we agree with them or not,” Luneau said.
“Senator, I respect that perspective. But I do disagree – both with you and the Law Institute on this. It’s not the first time,” Mills replied. “I remind you, the Supreme Court has reversed itself more than 200 times. I further remind you, with regard to the pro-life issue, we expect something similar. We have a stated position that Louisiana stands for a respect for life perspective, in hopes that one day there may be a different Court. And that 5-4 opinion in the case of Obergefell may not always be the lasting opinion or the final decision.”
“We also have to be fiscally responsible with our very limited resources here in the state of Louisiana,” Luneau responded. “We literally spent millions of dollars defending a couple of those pro-life cases, and we lost both of them. We can’t afford to do that anymore. I happen to agree with many of your beliefs, and we share that particular one in common, but you know what? When those kids are born, we have – as Christians – a responsibility to take care of them. But it’s difficult when we have the financial straits we have now. And if we keep going to court and fighting these issues we’re going to lose on, we aren’t being responsible – to those kids or to our citizens.”
Morrell waded back into the fray.
“Ladies and gentlemen, to be completely honest, I expected opposition. I did not expect this kind of opposition. You cannot selectively decide which Supreme Court cases you like and you don’t.
“I’ll give you a great example: I’m not a big fan of Citizen United: not a big fan of Hobby Lobby. But, as citizens of the United States, governed by the U.S. Constitution, when our Supreme Court makes a decision regarding the constitutionality or non-constitutionality of something, I think we have to adhere to it.
“As many of you might recall, when the Brown v. Board of Education decision came down, segregation did not end overnight. Many states – Louisiana being one of them – fought to remain segregated. When Loving v. Virginia happened – which is pertinent to this case – it happened in the 60s – until the 1974 constitution, interracial marriage was still illegal in the state of Louisiana.
“Now, I’ll tell you — the people that argued to keep segregation in place, to keep interracial marriage banned, made the same argument Mr. Gene Mills is making right now. ‘Let’s take a position, and because the Supreme Court has spoken, we’re going to hold out and keep that law on the books, hoping they change their mind.’
“There are children in the state of Louisiana who have two moms or two dads. But by keeping our law separate from the rest of the United States, you’re saying that in the state of Louisiana it’s okay for people like Mr. Mills to tell people that regardless of what that pesky Supreme Court says, those people should not enjoy the same rights as everyone else.
“For people who say, like Mr. Mills, ‘Well, the Supreme Court has reversed itself 200 times’ – for people who believe in anti-miscegenation laws, people who believe we should still be segregated, I guarantee you since Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia, they’re still holding out hope that the Supreme Court will come to its senses. I don’t want to join the ranks of those people.
“This is the law of the land, whether you like it or not.”
Sen. Luneau moved to advance the bill favorably, with Sen. John Milkovich (D-Stonewall) objecting. The vote was 4-1 to kill the bill.
During the course of the debate, it was noted that the Law Institute maintains a list of unconstitutional Louisiana laws that need to be repealed. It is currently 77 pages long. In light of that, Sen. Morrell should not have been surprised at the opposition or the reasoning behind it.
Two years ago, Sen. Dan Claitor (R-Baton Rouge) attempted repeal of the “Balanced Treatment Act”, a 1982 law requiring equal public school instructional time be given to evolution and creationism. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Edwards v. Aguillard, that the law was unconstitutional.
During the committee debate on that repeal, Sen. Milkovich used the same argument offered by Rev. Mills this time.
“If we’re scrubbing the books of all statutes which are unconstitutional, I think we must recognize what the courts deem to be constitutional or unconstitutional is sometimes a moving target,” Milkovich said in 2016, after citing the 1893 ruling in Plessy v Ferguson, allowing “separate but equal” accommodations for blacks and whites, versus the 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional.
“I also have to give you a heads-up that former Senator Keith is a personal friend of mine,” Milkovich added then, referring to the author of the Balanced Treatment Act.
And this year, Milkovich has filed a resolution to commend former state Senator Bill Keith for “his support and endorsement of teaching creationism in public schools”. It is awaiting a second reading on the Senate floor.