The battle that never ends

Republican state Sen. Ryan Gatti must think GOP Congressman Mike Johnson is a black cloud constantly pelting rain on his head.

Last year, Johnson ally state Rep. Raymond Crews solidly defeated Gatti’s brother Robbie to take over Louisiana’s 8th District House of Representatives seat from Johnson, who recently had won election to Congress. Now Johnson is throwing cold water on Gatti’s signature piece of legislation this regular session of the Louisiana Legislature.

SB 512 would let school employees pray publicly with students during the school day on school property as long as that does not interfere with their duties, if all students participating have given their explicit permission. The House should deal with the legislation this week.

The bill joins 18 others Gatti hopes to become statute. Almost half deal with social issues, promoting issue preferences expressing traditional values largely favored by his constituents. This canny move helps to shore up his conservative credentials in his district mainly covering Bossier and Webster Parishes, after a first year of Senate votes aligned with Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards’ tax-and-spend agenda which his district’s majority dislikes.

This legislation would break new legal ground. Currently, teachers and other school personnel must remain neutral to and uninvolved with any organized praying on school grounds by students. Gatti believes the unanimous consent clause would inoculate from constitutional complaints.

That assertion seems questionable. Even though large majorities sent the bill through the Senate, it began to encounter more concerted resistance in the House because of doubts about its constitutionality, brought about by individuals supportive of maximizing religious freedom in the schoolhouse.
State Rep. Rick Edmonds, a minister affiliated with the state’s leading traditional values interest group the Louisiana Family Forum, in committee expressed doubts whether the legislation would pass constitutional muster, echoed by testifier Michelle Ghetti, a nationally-known constitutional law professor at Southern University.

Then Johnson weighed in. One of the nation’s foremost litigators concerning the religious portion of the First Amendment, he issued a public statement discouraging pursuit of the bill. Several others who like him have argued numerous such cases all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court joined him in signing the note.

These experts stated case law is established and disallows Gatti’s sanitation idea, so not even passing it into law and fending off a court challenge could work. Worse, they asserted, they thought the inevitable suit against and overturning the bill’s contents in law would force a step backwards, figuring the eventual decision would make it easier for jurisprudential chipping away at religious liberties.

While the bill has powerful symbolic value that could carry it through the House – and likely garner the signature of Edwards, who Gatti has known since law school and who he supported for governor instead of his own party’s candidates – the authority from which Johnson speaks carries much weight. If that convinces enough of the chamber’s Republican majority to reject it, Johnson again will have denied Gatti an important political victory.

Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer or this newspaper.

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