This year’s Arkansas legislative session could be tagged with the phrase, “No news is good news.” While the Diocese of Little Rock monitors what bills are presented to make sure social and moral teachings of the Church are not being threatened, this year so far does not include many hot-button issues.
“The last two legislative sessions by this date, my list was a lot fuller than it is today,” said Patrick Gallaher, Catholic Charities of Arkansas executive director. “I just don’t think that this is going to be a high volume legislative session for us. And I don’t think it’s going to be a high controversy legislative session for us. I hope.”
Both the House and Senate maintain a Republican majority, which happened in 2015, the first time since Reconstruction.
There are some bills that may affect immigrants, students and pro-life causes.
“Areas to watch for in terms of Catholic social doctrine in this legislative session would be the health care. What’s going to happen with Arkansas Works? Immigration — there are two anti-sanctuary bills that have been proposed. We expect to have at least a couple of bills trying to limit abortion in the state. And those are important as a matter of respect life,” Gallaher said.
While HB1041 sponsored by Rep. Brandt Smith of Jonesboro does not specifically include the words “Shariah Law,” its intent is to limit the application of Islamic law within the state’s justice system. Gallaher said it was a religious liberty issue and he is concerned with how broadly it would be applied, which could include canon law for Catholics.
“Conceivably this law would prohibit the use of canon law in our business relationships as Catholic institutions,” he said.
For example, canon law requires that some Catholic entities first obtain permission from the diocesan bishop or the Vatican before selling property that is valued above a certain amount. That requirement could be affected under the proposed bill, he said.
In the United States, there are about 300 communities that have sanctuary policies in place that are said to protect information on undocumented immigrants. According to a Jan. 10 USA Today article, sanctuary cities like Chicago, New York and San Francisco do not allow municipal employees to turn people or information in about those who are undocumented to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
There are more than 20 colleges that have varying degrees of sanctuary policies, including Catholic college Saint Mary’s in California. According to a PBS NewsHour report, no federal immigration officials have ever raided a college campus to deport undocumented students. There is also no standard sanctuary policy, with variations by area.
No Arkansas cities or schools claim to have sanctuary policies. SB14 and HB1042, proposed by Sen. Gary Stubblefield of Branch (Franklin County) and Rep. Smith, respectively, aim to prevent any sanctuary policies in the state.
“I think what it is is they would pass it just to convince cities not to become sanctuary cities. I hope there’s not mean-spiritedness in it aimed at immigrants,” Gallaher said.
Conversations about sanctuary cities and campuses have emerged again after President Donald Trump’s campaign promises to deport millions of undocumented immigrants with criminal records.
According to USA Today, his administration could put forth federal lawsuits or cut off grants from the Justice and Homeland Security departments to local law enforcement agencies in places that designate themselves as sanctuaries.
“The bills don’t solve an existing problem. I think they purposefully cast in a bad light people who live in Arkansas who are undocumented immigrants and it’s unfair and it’s unnecessary,” Gallaher said.
The Senate bill also states that anyone filing a Freedom of Information Act would not be allowed access to administrative investigations into sanctuary policies.
“Our government should be as open as possible at all times, and we see regular curtailment of the application of the state Freedom of Information law to areas of government,” Gallaher said. “Things like FOIA doesn’t apply to the State Department of Correction, why? The FOIA doesn’t apply to the death penalty; in other words when the state goes out and purchases drugs to be used to kill people, everything involved in that could be kept secret. And now they’re saying, ‘If it’s going to involve investigations into the sanctuary status of (cities), that’s going to be secret.’ It shouldn’t be secret.”
After successfully banning partial-birth abortions in Arkansas, executive director Rose Mimms said Arkansas Right to Life will focus on banning “D&E” or dilation and evacuation abortions. This method is one way to remove a baby that is too large to be suctioned out of the mother’s womb. HB1032 was filed in the House by Rep. Andy Mayberry of Hensley (Pulaski County), who is also president of Arkansas Right to Life, and Sen. David J. Sanders of Little Rock as sponsors, along with 34 co-sponsors.
“This is a second trimester abortion; typically they do this anywhere from 12 to 20 weeks,” she said, adding in Arkansas it is up to just 19 weeks as abortions are banned at 20 weeks and later. “It is where they go in to perform the abortion with sharp instruments, forceps that have teeth on them and begin grasping at the baby’s body and begin pulling and tearing.
“They pull out pieces so they’re dismembering the body of the baby.”
According to the Arkansas Department of Health, 17 percent of abortions — 638 — were D&Es in 2015 out of 3,771 total abortions. There were 91 D&Es performed at 12 weeks and 35 at 19 weeks, with the rest performed in between 13-18 weeks.
Other states including Mississippi and Louisiana have banned this method. Despite critics saying it’s unconstitutional to limit abortion methods, there are other ways to abort a baby that are more humane, including using potassium chloride which kills the baby before they are dismembered, Mimms said.
“This is a hot issue,” Mimms said. “… This is a living baby that’s feeling every bit of that and suffering that. If they want a dead baby, there’s other ways to accomplish that without ripping this baby apart. I’m not sure we’ll stop a lot of abortions, but we’ll educate people.”
For those who attend Catholic schools, there are some bills worth watching, including SB112 and HB1056. In the Senate, a bill to “allow an income tax deduction for qualifying education expenses” was sponsored by Sen. Jane English of North Little Rock.
The bill would allow parents of any student, whether they are homeschooled or attending a private or public school for elementary or secondary education to qualify for tax deductions for expenses like tuition and fees, school uniforms, books and other school supplies.
The bill includes a 50-percent deduction “of the actual amount of qualified education expenses paid by the taxpayer for a qualifying child up to $5,000 for each qualifying child.”
HB1056, sponsored by Rep. Douglas House of North Little Rock, aims to remove the requirement that students attend a public school for at least one year before receiving a Succeed Scholarship if the superintendent approves the waiver. In 2015, the state passed the Succeed Scholarship Program which allows special needs students to attend a private school with a scholarship. The requirement to attend a public school for a year was waived only for students of military families. Under this bill, it would be removed if the superintendent of the student’s public school district approves the waiver.
“I support both of them. One reason is because I think parents should have a choice,” in what school their child attends, said Vernell Bowen, superintendent of Catholic Schools. “And the second reason is the tax deduction will help them take off expenses they haven’t been able to take off and they already pay taxes.”
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