Conservative social bills weave through legislature

By Kit Wagar, Special to the Jewish Light

You could tell that filing for re-election to the legislature started on Feb. 28 by the types of bills that began percolating to the surface.

Republican lawmakers, who captured the House and Senate by promoting conservative values to constituents back home, are now advancing a wide range of social legislation designed primarily to rein in sex and unshackle the Bible.

From new limits on sex education classes to penalties for living in sin, the proposed laws would remake Missouri’s public life in myriad ways. They would sanction prayer in public schools, subsidize religious schools and allow the Bible to be taught in public schools.

One bill purports to help women make “the transition from work to home.” Another wants the legislature to recognize “a Christian God” as the deity for most Missourians.

Rep. Cynthia Davis, an O’Fallon Republican, said conservatives were tired of an overly permissive society in which high school students are taught how to put on condoms.

“It’s time to get back to the basics,” Davis said. “Our country has been hijacked by liberals. We’ve had people with left-wing ideas pushing us away from what made America strong.”

Rep. Rachel Storch, a St. Louis Democrat, said such legislation represents a fundamental clash of ideology.

“We have the unraveling of what many people would describe as progress,” Storch said. “Some of the legislation is divisive in a gratuitous way. One of the privileges Americans have is living under an umbrella big enough for all of us, that accepts our differences and lets us live in peace with each other.”

While many of the bills stand little chance of making it through the long legislative process intact, several are surviving initial tests.

Here are two of the conservative social bills that survived early votes:

House Bill 1075:

Davis introduced a bill that would eliminate the requirement that sex education classes include information about various forms of contraception, including failure rates and each technique’s ability to prevent disease.

Instead, the bill would have teachers tell students that they can get information about contraception, abortion and pregnancy from their doctor. The bill also would ban Planned Parenthood from providing sex education classes in public schools.

A House committee then amended the bill to require clases to teach that a child’s life begins at fertilization and that an unborn child has “sensory awareness” long before birth.

Rep. Sam Page, a Creve Coeur Democrat, said the bill was ridiculous.

“It is reasonable to provide kids with basic information about sex,” Page said. “It is unreasonable to believe they can get that from a short visit to their family physician – if they have one.”

But Davis said students are supposed to have a doctor listed on their enrollment forms. Poor children have access to physicians either through Medicaid or free clinics, she said.

She said her bill is aimed at students who smoke, are overweight or have diabetes and need individual attention before they begin using contraceptives.

“Isn’t it prudent to have students get information from someone with medical training rather than a public school teacher?” Davis asked.

Storch called Davis’ proposal “The Teen Endangerment Bill.” Storch, whose father is medical director of a pediatric AIDS clinic, said teens need comprehensive sex education. AIDS babies born in the early 1990s are now HIV-positive teen-agers, she said.

“We know teens are sexually active,” Storch said. “We can teach abstinence for safety, but not to tell them about the health risks puts them in danger.”

The bill was approved by the Rules Committee and sent to the House floor.

Senate Bill 736:

Sen. Jason Crowell, a Cape Girardeau Republican, introduced this bill, which would allow school districts to teach classes on the Bible as history, literature, comparative religions or other academic subjects.

Crowell said he introduced the bill after school administrators in his district said they wanted to start a class on the Bible but were afraid of being sued.

“The Bible is the most quoted text in the history of mankind,” Crowell said. “I don’t think it is a problem to incorporate it into the statutes of Missouri.”

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education took no position on the bill. But spokesman Jim Morris said nothing prohibits schools from teaching about the Bible now.

In 2004, 33 Missouri school districts used the Bible in literature, folklore or comparative religion classes. In 2005, 19 districts reported using the Bible.

Brent Ghan, spokesman for the Missouri School Boards Association, said he knew of no district that had been sued for teaching the Bible.

“Our attorneys say that it is acceptable to teach about the Bible as long as the teacher doesn’t promote it or cross the line into evangelism,” Ghan said.

Sen. Joan Bray, a St. Louis County Democrat, said she didn’t object to teaching the Bible as an academic subject. Growing up in Dallas, Bray received high school credit for attending a Bible class at her church.

But she said she worried that the provision that would allow the Bible to be taught in “multiple circumstances” seemed so wide open that some school boards might think it allowed teachers to proselytize.

“We don’t need this law unless it’s just an attempt to rally the troops,” Bray said. “We don’t need a law for a law’s sake.”

The bill was approved by the Senate Education Committee.

Kit Wagar is the statehouse correspondent for the Kansas City Star. He can be reached at 816-234-4440 or by sending e-mail to [email protected]

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