When state Senator Stanley “Jason” Rapert of Arkansas sponsored a Senate bill that called for the placement of a Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol grounds in Little Rock, he made it clear that no taxpayer funds would go toward the construction of the monument, for which he had established a crowd-funding campaign to meet his financing goals. Of course, construction of the monument was not the only cost that should have been anticipated from his efforts, and it was clear from the beginning that this flagrant flouting of the Establishment Clause would result in expensive litigation. Now that the litigation is underway, we find the Arkansas Attorney General’s office leading the defense, at the taxpayer’s expense. And when the monument is removed from the Capitol grounds for the offense against the First Amendment that it is, it will surely be taxpayers who pay the removal fee as well.
In Oklahoma, Rep. Tammy Townley has introduced House Bill 3890 which seeks to designate “the” Bible as Oklahoma’s “official state book.” In an op-ed for The Oklahoman, the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s Annie Laurie Gaylor explains that the bill is “not only unconstitutional, it is also an affront to true religious freedom,” adding that, “HB 3890 is fiscally irresponsible, too, as it would almost certainly result in a preventable lawsuit that would cost state taxpayers dearly.”
All across the nation, in fact, bills are being proposed, deliberated on, and sometimes passed, that flagrantly violate the most basic fundamental democratic principles of the Constitution, have little chance of withstanding legal scrutiny, and do not even claim to serve a compelling state interest. Many of these bills are not even authored by their sponsors, but are instead created from templates drawn up by outside interest groups, like those that comprise “Project Blitz.”
Project Blitz is a coalition of multiple Christian Nationalist groups to create theocratically-motivated model legislation templates, like Rapert’s Ten Commandments bill, for affiliated politicians, like Sen. Rapert, who merely need to fill in the blanks and submit. The Project Blitz playbook advises lawmakers that “introducing a bill can have positive effects, even if the bill is not ultimately passed,” because even failed bills can have a “significant ripple effect on subsequent measures, policies, and agency actions.”
And why not? While those who litigate against them are forced to spend significant legal costs, Project Blitz politicians lose nothing in allocating public funds toward their borrowed unconstitutional crusades. While some lawmakers spend public funds to pursue unconstitutional goals, private citizens pay from their own resources to defend constitutional values from the very lawmakers who swore an oath to uphold them. To add further insult—in the case of Sen. Rapert and his Ten Commandments efforts—he not only uses public resources to pursue a goal that does not serve the general public interest, but he profits from it, setting up a Ten Commandments Monument donation page directed toward his political campaign.
Given the prevalence of public office abuse, particularly from politicians whose first loyalty is to their religious tribe, it may be time to rethink the broad immunity that politicians enjoy, and that allows them to pillage public funds to advance bills that reflect their personal interests with little regard for the constitutionality or cost, and with little concern as to whether those bills pass or fail.
If Sen. Rapert insists on abusing his public office to place a monument to his own religious beliefs on public grounds, and to the exclusion of other religious viewpoints, he should pay the inevitable costs that follow. If Rep. Tammy Townley of Oklahoma insists on abusing her public office to insultingly impose her own preferred religious text on a religiously diverse population, she should be personally accountable for the resultant litigation.
Traditionally, there has been a concern that the option for punitive actions against arguably unconstitutional legislative proposals will open the door to the pursuit of political vendettas following each and every proposal that is made. But I think a simple test could be applied that would help mitigate such concerns. When legislation is proposed, it should be asked:
- If passed, is the legislation likely to result in a constitutional challenge?
- Does the proposed legislation arguably serve a “compelling state interest”?
A compelling state interest is defined as an “interest [that] is compelling when it is essential or necessary rather than a matter of choice, preference, or discretion.” Project Blitz politicians can not argue that they are unable to foresee constitutional challenges to their legislative proposals, not least because they often re-introduce bills again and again that have already been deemed unconstitutional elsewhere. And they certainly are not to be taken seriously if they suggest that their efforts to display preference for one religious perspective, to the exclusion of all others, serves any compelling state interest. The combination of an expected constitutional challenge along with the lack of any compelling argument for a compelling state interest should at least result in the sponsoring lawmaker taking financial responsibility for their thoughtless introduction of bills that they did not author, and possibly never even fully read.