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Slimantics: The snake-handlers in the Capitol are at it again


Slim Smith



Some people never learn. 


Three days after the pastor of a small Kentucky church died from a rattlesnake bite during a church service, church members mourned his passing by, you guessed it, going to church and handling rattlesnakes.  


Most folks would probably be inclined to simply shake their heads and chalk it up to ignorance. 


Yet what we see in that small Kentucky church is routinely replicated in the Mississippi Legislature. 


Each session, it seems, our legislators scour through the ash heap of failed laws around the country and immediately bring up their own version. And, of course, they are shocked -- simply shocked! -- when they are bitten by the same metaphorical snake. 


Today, Gov. Phil Bryant and the Legislature are squirming uncomfortably over what happened in Arizona Wednesday. There, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have sanctioned discrimination under the guise of religious liberty. The veto came after intense pressure, both inside Arizona -- business and tourism leaders called it poison to their interests -- and outside, where the NFL threatened to pull the Super Bowl in 2015 if the bill was signed into law. It has been a public-relations nightmare for the state and irreparable damage has been done to the state's image. 


Not surprisingly, Mississippi has its own version of the bill awaiting House approval. The bill, originally proposed to add the words "In God We Trust" to the state seal, was surreptitiously amended to permit the same sort of discrimination found in Arizona's failed bill. Consider that sad piece of irony -- sleight of hand used to affirm our trust in God.  


The Senate passed the bill unanimously, which proves that you should always, always read the fine print. 


It is uncertain at this point what will happen to Mississippi's bill in light of what happened in Arizona, but would it really be all that surprising if the legislature plowed right ahead and pushed the law through anyway? Is there any doubt at all that Bryant would sign it without hesitation? He is far to the right of even Brewer, who approved Medicaid expansion for her state despite her well-established reputation as one of the nation's most conservative governors. 


Even if, by some minor miracle, the Legislature has the clarity to send this version of the bill to the dustbin, there are plenty of other bills that prove the majority of our legislators are unfamiliar with the idiom, "once bitten, twice shy." 


In this session, the Senate will soon take up a bill passed by the House that prohibits abortion after 20 weeks' gestation despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in January that affirmed Arizona's attempt to revive a 20-week ban is unconstitutional. An appeals court had earlier ruled the Arizona law violates a woman's constitutionally protected right to terminate a pregnancy before a fetus is able to survive outside the womb. Viability of a fetus is generally considered to start at 24 weeks. 


Now, do you think for an instant that this ruling will have any affect at all on the Mississippi Senate's vote? Of course not, silly.  


No, the Senate will pass the bill, Bryant will sign it into law and it will join similar 20-week abortion bans in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas that will never see the light of day. 


Meanwhile, another piece of doomed legislation, a bill that requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at Mississippi hospitals, will soon be argued before the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals beginning on April 28. That law has about as much chance of surviving as I have of becoming a Radio City Music Hall Rockette. 


You might be inclined to have a "no-harm, no-foul" attitude about this annual procession of failed legislation. But the truth is every time our Legislature passes laws that are patently unconstitutional, we suffer a blow to our reputation. We are perceived as a bunch of uneducated boobs, the political equivalent of snake-handlers, afflicted by equal parts obstinance and ignorance and, therefore, more to be pitied than condemned. 


Some people never learn, all right. 


And an awful lot of them work at the state capitol.


Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]


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