They made jokes about it.
This was more than 10 years ago, when I was the executive director of what was then the Indiana Civil Liberties Union – now the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana.
The members of the Indiana General Assembly had before them a proposal to post the Ten Commandments on the Statehouse lawn. That idea had been tried before elsewhere – and the courts had not shown much inclination to allow government the power to establish a state religion.
Quite a few legislators knew that.
They realized how the whole thing would play out. They’d adopt the measure allowing the posting and please the social conservatives among their constituents. Then the ICLU would sue, win and collect a fat fee from the state for winning a case on constitutional grounds.
That’s why the senators and representatives made the jokes. They called the Ten Commandments bill “the ICLU appropriations act.”
One lawmaker who voted for it even stopped me outside House chamber, clapped his hand on my shoulder and laughed:
“I hope you’re going to send me a thank-you note for that gift I just gave you.”
What a thigh-slapper.
There were at least a couple of problems with this comedy routine.
The first was that these legislators had taken oaths to uphold the very constitutional principles they’d just voted to turn into a joke. The fact that some – not all, by any means – took such a frivolous approach to meeting their duties and honoring those oaths didn’t seem funny.
The second was that this was tax money. And while, as the person at that time primarily responsible for the ICLU’s financial health, I was glad to see a hefty sum deposited in the organization’s bank account, I found the cynicism of those who made the windfall possible breathtaking.
Many lawmakers who cracked the jokes about the “ICLU appropriations act” were – and, in some cases, still are – people who routinely talked about the things for which the state just didn’t have money. These were unimportant things such as good schools and making roads safe.
Flash forward more than 10 years. There now are people calling for Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller to provide an accounting of the time and money spent on defending the state’s ban on same-sex marriages.
Count me among those doing the asking.
I won’t speak for others, but my focus isn’t Zoeller, who, as the state’s attorney, has an obligation to defend the state’s laws, however bad or unconstitutional those laws might be.
(I would note, though, as someone who has employed more than a few attorneys in his time, that one thing I expect from my lawyer is a realistic assessment of my chances of winning before we get drawn into litigation – and that can mean telling me, as the client, that I have a weak case and shouldn’t throw good money after bad pursuing it.)
No, my focus is on the self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives who have no problem denying Indiana’s children pre-school opportunities or affordable textbooks in the name of financial restraint, but also have no problem wasting money on expensive but empty gestures designed to appease either conservative activists, many of whom need such proposals upon which to build fundraising and recruiting campaigns, or their own prejudices.
In the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to uphold challenged same-sex marriage bans, many Hoosier conservative activists have vowed to push for legislation “protecting” social conservatives’ rights of conscience to deny service or religious recognition to married gay couples.
Such legislation likely will be nothing more than exercises in ideological indulgence and building fundraising campaigns. The rights of conscience for social conservatives – and all other Hoosiers and Americans, for that matter – are set forth in the U.S. and Indiana constitutions. No law passed by the Indiana General Assembly is going to change that.
That likely won’t stop some conservative lawmakers from pandering to their activist base. These guys love a good joke.
Let’s see if lawmakers think it’s such a chuckle when the taxpayers figure out the laugh’s on them.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.