Diocese of Little Rock leaders made their voices heard on issues including abortion, the death penalty and guns in churches during the 2017 legislative session.
“I think but for a couple of issues it didn’t affect Catholic Charities offices directly,” said Patrick Gallaher, Catholic Charities of Arkansas executive director. “It ended up being a pretty calm legislative session.”
A priority for the diocese and Arkansas Right to Life this year was to ban dismemberment abortions, or “D&E” dilation and evacuation, in the state. The method used in the second trimester, usually 12 to 20 weeks, was a way to remove a baby that is too large to be suctioned out of the mother’s womb. The bill is now Act 45.
“We were thrilled it moved real quickly, no snags,” ARTL director Rose Mimms said. “We’ve spent at least three years educating people about the dismemberment abortion procedure … If we keep the ban in effect, it will mean the only abortion method legal in Arkansas would be suction for early first trimester abortion and then the chemical abortion method with the pills. There are other abortion methods they could use, but they wouldn’t be able to use the dismemberment abortion.”
Mimms said pro-abortion supporters have already vowed to challenge the law, but that Arkansas Right to Life will continue to defend it, along with Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.
Other pro-life measures included banning sex-selection abortions, which no longer allows abortions based on the sex of the child.
“We know that happens, not maybe as often as we think it might, once the sex is determined for one reason or another if a couple does not want a boy or girl they had an option to get an abortion,” Mimms said, adding Arkansas Right to Life would have taken it further to include race and disability. She said it’s a possible amendment they may pursue in the future.
• Gallaher helped work on legislation for SB356, now Act 504, regarding Physician Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment forms in the state. This allows for patients to determine specific advanced directives for their care if they become incapacitated in the future.
“It helps lay out a physician’s responsibility and a patient’s options,” he said. “We want to continue to protect the citizens of Arkansas from euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide.”
Much controversy surrounded HB1245 that created an enhanced concealed-carry license allowing those with a gun permit and eight extra hours of training implemented by the Arkansas State Police to carry a weapon in more public places, including college campuses and public buildings. Before HB1245 was introduced this session, churches were allowed to decide whether to prohibit or allow concealed carry handguns without posting signs stating their policy.
“The issue isn’t so much whether churches should or should not prohibit guns. The issue is whether the government should dictate to churches what their policies on guns should be or how to communicate those policies to their members,” said Dennis Lee, chancellor for administrative affairs. “Before this legislative session the law was fine … All that changed this session when the governor signed Act 562 that was supported with a very public lobbying effort by the NRA (National Riffle Assocation).”
Act 562 said churches that prohibit handguns must put signs at all entrances that said “carrying a handgun is prohibited.” However, in the final days of the session, a new bill, now Act 859, replaced it, stating that churches could dictate their own gun policy.
“This wrong was corrected by the governor when he signed Act 859, this time over the objections of the NRA, that will go into effect Sept. 1,” Lee said. “Under this new law churches will again be free to make their own decision about whether to post or not post signs about their policy on licensed concealed carry handguns without government interference.”
• Three bills were filed this session by the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty aimed at eliminating the death penalty in the state: HB2103 sought to replace death sentences with life imprisonment; HB2170 aimed at broadening the “active symptoms” that allow prisoners with serious mental illness to avoid the death penalty, including delusion, hallucination and mania; and HB1798 which sought to add to the burden of proof when the death penalty is being sought by the state. It created the extra burden that “the defendant is guilty of each element of the underlying offense beyond any doubt.”
All bills were voted down in committee.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson had scheduled eight executions from April 17 to 27. Leading up to the executions, Catholics have worked with religious and community organizations to organize rallies and vigils in an effort to convince Hutchinson to commute the sentences to life in prison without parole (related story, page 1).
“The Church strives to uphold the dignity of all human life, and abolishing the use of the death penalty in Arkansas is just one aspect of the Church’s holistic teachings on the sanctity of life. The teaching of the Catholic Church in the Catechism (no. 2267) is that the death penalty should only be considered ‘if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against an unjust aggressor,’ and if there is a ‘non-lethal means’ that will defend and protect people, such a means should be used ‘as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person,’” Lee said. “The government in Arkansas has the ability to protect its people with a ‘non-lethal means’ which is to make life without the possibility of parole its harshest sentence for the most heinous crimes. This is why our diocese is joining other people of goodwill in seeking to abolish the death penalty in Arkansas.”
• Both House and Senate bills aimed at preventing sanctuary policies in municipalities and colleges in Arkansas died in committee. Though sanctuary policies vary by area, some cities like Chicago and New York do not allow municipal employees to turn in people or information on undocumented immigrants to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Various colleges also have different degrees of sanctuary policies for undocumented students.
“Both of those would have indirectly treated immigrants poorly because they were both laws that were aimed at immigrants,” Gallaher said, adding that from a Catholic social doctrine standpoint, “they would have controlled the ability of a local government to pass laws.”
• There was some headway made in tenant rights, Gallaher said. SB25, now Act 159, does not require a tenant accused of failure to vacate brought to the court by the landlord to place the contested rent owed in court before being able to plead not guilty. Arkansas is still the only state that criminalizes evictions.
“Maybe in the future we can decriminalize it completely. Everyone should have a basic human right to shelter,” Gallaher said. “This makes it much harder for people to obtain shelter and it makes it easier for landlords who are not responsible landlords to be able to take advantage of tenants.”
Legislation that allows a tenant to break a lease if the rental property becomes uninhabitable, HB1166, had been referred to the Senate Committee on Insurance and Commerce.
• HB1041, now Act 980, is intended to limit the application of Islamic law within the state’s justice system.
“My greatest concern for the Church was the prospect of unforeseeable, unintended consequences. Conceptually it could involve canon law issues I don’t know how that will turn out,” Gallaher said.
• The introduction of a school tax deduction program failed in the House, twice. After a House bill failed to introduce a tax deduction program to help with educational expenses, a Senate bill was crafted. That bill was approved by the Senate, but then it got rejected by the House. HB1222/SB746 would have allowed parents to set up education savings accounts to pay for tuition, books, uniforms, after-school care and tutoring. The bills were amended to be a pilot program, mostly for low-income students.
• In 2015, Arkansas passed the Succeed Scholarship Program which allows special needs children to attend private schools with a scholarship. One of the requirements under that program was to a student must attend a public school for at least a year before receiving the scholarship. HB1056, now Act 637, allows the removal of the requirement if the student’s public school superintendent approves the waiver.
“Act 637 will provide more opportunity for parents to choose a private school since they will not have to be in a public school one year prior to entering a private school of their choice,” said Vernell Bowen, superintendent of Catholic schools. “I am hopeful that in the near future that a universal school choice bill will be passed that will be more inclusive for families of all socio-economic levels.”
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