Legislation that may or may not grease the skids for taxpayer support of religious schools is in transit to Gov. Kevin Stitt after Senate Bill 404 passed the House of Representatives 64-27 on Tuesday following two hours of discussion and debate.
SB 404 by Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, was described by House sponsor Jon Echols as a “religious discrimination” cure, but opponents — including seven Republicans — weren’t so sure. They suspected it of being a semi-stealth attempt to help the Oklahoma City Catholic Archdiocese prevail in its efforts to secure state funding for a Catholic virtual charter school.
Those suspicions were raised by Daniels’ and Echols’ statements that the archdiocese was involved in the bill’s creation and their inability to give concrete examples of why the change is necessary given that the state already has a religious freedom act on the books.
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“Either this bill does nothing … or it will do something we do not wish to see,” said Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa.
Echols brushed aside most questions as to SB 404’s possible intent and effects as irrelevant. But he did say the bill would not give religious organizations automatic access to taxpayer funds.
“You can’t discriminate solely based on religion, but there are a million other reasons you can say no,” Echols said. “You could discriminate based on proselytization. You could discriminate based on them not having the systems in place to follow the other rules.”
Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City, seemed to find Echols’ answers a little too slippery.
“Come on, man,” Bennett said. “The reality is, if this law were to change tomorrow, if a religious charter school asked for funding, what would be the only reason the state would say no? What would be the only reason?”
“A series of reasons,” Echols replied. “They wouldn’t be able to do it without proselytizing — there’s a statutory provision (barring that). But change the law or not, (the state) could still say yes. The First Amendment is what deals with the charter school issue.”
Some Democrats who argued against the bill maintained that Daniels said during the March 7 Senate discussion that she had worked with church officials to develop SB 404 as a way around the state’s constitutional and statutory barriers to taxpayer-funded religious instruction. No such statement can be heard on recordings of that discussion or the Feb. 23 Senate committee hearing on the bill, however.
Daniels did say the archdiocese had a hand in writing the bill.
The bill itself is quite brief. It would insert one sentence into existing statute: “It shall be deemed a substantial burden to exclude any person or entity from participation in or receipt of governmental funds, benefits, programs, or exemptions based solely on the religious character or affiliation of the person or entity.”
It also would delete an existing sentence: “As used in this subsection, granting government funds, benefits, or exemptions shall not include the denial of government funding, benefits, or exemptions.”
All seemed to agree, though, that the effect of those two changes is to shift the burden of proof from a religious organization claiming discrimination to the state.
Earlier Tuesday, the House passed SB 193, by Sen. Jessica Garvin, R-Duncan, which in its current form would provide six weeks of paid maternity leave for state employees. Although a Republican bill, all 21 nays were by Republicans, some of whom seemed concerned that the maternity leave would be unfair to those who didn’t or couldn’t use it. There was also a hint that it might make hiring and retaining workers harder for private employers.
House sponsor Nick Archer, R-Elk City, said the $3 million the benefit is expected to cost the state would be more than offset by workforce retention. He also said it fits conservative policy goals.
“I believe this would make Oklahoma a very pro-life and pro-family state,” he said.
SB 193 now goes back to the Senate.