In GOP strongholds, a big push on 'culture war' legislation

PTI | Littlerock | Updated: 10-04-2021 20:29 IST | Created: 10-04-2021 20:29 IST
In GOP strongholds, a big push on 'culture war' legislation

An ardent abortion foe who once opposed allowing gay couples to be foster parents, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is the unlikeliest figure to complain about bills on the “culture wars'' reaching his desk.

But by vetoing a ban on gender confirming treatments for transgender youth, the Republican offered a rare rebuke to fellow conservatives who have been in overdrive this legislative session with bills expanding gun rights and restricting LGBTQ and abortion rights.

“I was told this week that the nation is looking at Arkansas because I have on my desk another bill passed by the General Assembly that is a product of the cultural war in America,'' Hutchinson said as he announced his decision. “I don't shy away from the battle when it is necessary and defensible, but the most recent action of the General Assembly, while well-intended, is off-course.'' Even for veterans of the culture wars like Hutchinson, this year has been a jarring one in Republican-controlled statehouses from South Carolina to South Dakota. Fueled by an influx of hard-right lawmakers echoing former President Donald Trump and the backing of outside groups, Republican legislatures are pushing the bounds in already deeply Republican states on issues such as gun rights, access to abortions, and increasingly, protections for transgender people. The bills reflect the larger mood of the Republican Party, which nationally has struggled to define Democrats in the post-Trump era. Instead, the focus has been on issues that drive the party's base and that Republicans use to portray Democrats as out of touch with average Americans.

“Republicans' frustration with an inability to move policy at a federal level trickles down to more action in the states,'' Republican strategist Alex Conant said. “I think a lot of these state legislatures are responding to the demands of the conservative base, which sees the culture wars headed in the wrong direction nationally.'' Few are going farther to the right than Arkansas, where Hutchinson over the past several weeks has signed bills restricting rights for transgender people, banning almost all abortions in the state, and easing restrictions on the use of deadly force in self-defense in the so-called Stand Your Ground law.

The bills faced little to no resistance in the Legislature.

“The conservative bent of this legislature is just so overwhelming that there's not any guardrails,” said Sen. Keith Ingram, the top Democrat in Arkansas' Senate.

Some of the measures Republicans are pushing in the country expand on longtime party priorities. Encouraged by Trump's three appointments to the Supreme Court, GOP lawmakers have moved beyond incremental abortion restrictions and are instead trying to enact outright bans like Arkansas has. Thirty-one such bans have been proposed in 15 states this year, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.

The number of anti-abortion bills being considered in Oklahoma has nearly doubled over the past three years. South Carolina's Republican governor signed a measure banning nearly all abortions, a measure that was immediately blocked due to a legal challenge.

Efforts to expand gun rights are also advancing in Republican states that already have few restrictions, with GOP lawmakers citing fears of new gun control measures under President Joe Biden's administration. Hutchinson in February signed a Stand Your Ground law loosening restrictions on the use of deadly force in self defense, a proposal that had stalled in past years. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee last week signed a law allowing most adults 21 and older to carry handguns without a background check or training.

The new fronts include record numbers of voting restrictions fueled by Trump's unfounded claims of election fraud in 2020. A new sweeping voting law in Georgia prompted pushback from major corporations and even led to Major League Baseball pulling the World Series out of Atlanta.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBTQ rights group, said it's been alarmed by the record number of bills imposing restrictions on transgender people. More than 100 such bills have been filed so far this year, the group said. At least 20 states are considering treatment bans similar to Arkansas'.

GOP leaders say the bills in some cases reflect lawmakers catching up on sessions cut short last year due to COVID-19, but also constituents' desires.

“That's the direction that Tennessee is wanting to move, based on the people they elected,'' said Cameron Sexton, the House speaker in Tennessee, where the flood of advancing bills includes an effort to make the Bible the state's official book.

The agenda for Arkansas' House and Senate on any given day this year looks like a social conservatives' dream. Other bills working their way through the Legislature include one allowing schools to teach creationism and one prohibiting police from enforcing federal gun laws.

The flood of bills is even too much for Hutchinson. A longtime figure in the state's Republican politics, Hutchinson is a former congressman who called for reinstating the state's ban on gay foster parents when he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006. Since taking office in 2015, he's signed some of the strictest abortion restrictions in the country.

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)


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