State senators this week will have the opportunity to show where they stand on Louisiana's latest incarnation of 1950s-style segregation laws. I'm not making this up, and I'm not exaggerating.
On its face, Senate Bill 217 by Sen. A.G. Crowe, R-Pearl River, may strike some as benign — as did many of the "states rights" bills in the 1950s and '60s. However, the real intent of the bill and its supporters came out on March 29, when the bill was heard by the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee, which Crowe chairs.
SB 217 aims to prohibit the state and all local governments from protecting persons against discrimination based on sexual orientation, proficiency in English, special needs and other factors not already enumerated in state law.
If passed, the bill would allow charter schools, for example, to discriminate against kids who are gay, who aren't proficient in English, who have special needs or who simply aren't the best students. All this — despite federal laws that require public schools to be open to all kids.
If you think I'm exaggerating, watch the archived online video of the committee's March 29 meeting. Only two people spoke in favor of the bill — LSU professor Randy Trahan and local charter school board member Leslie Ellison. Both, without prompting, framed their support of the bill in terms of charter schools. Trahan expressly stated that SB 217 would apply "across the board" to teachers and kids alike.
Some charter school proponents have since tried to distance themselves from SB 217 by saying it has nothing to do with charter schools. They are wrong.
SB 217's proponents include the Louisiana Baptist Convention, the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF) and the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops. It's interesting that LFF leader Gene Mills did not testify in committee. Perhaps he did not want to be outed as an architect of the bill. He did, however, tell reporters afterward that he wanted to "send a message" to Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Mills generally is an ardent supporter of Jindal. In this case, LFF apparently feels Jindal is not homophobic enough. During his testimony, Trahan said the Jindal administration protects gays through the state Department of Education's contracts with charter schools. Those contracts bar discrimination based on, among other factors, sexual orientation, mental or physical disability, athletic performance, special needs, proficiency in the English language or academic achievement.
Trahan, who presented the bill for Crowe, said he thinks charter schools should be able to discriminate against gay kids. Crowe made no move to object or clarify. Trahan also admitted that he got his info about charter schools' anti-discrimination provisions from LFF. So much for Mills not being outed.
Crowe added that SB 217 will apply to local governments, which means it could undermine New Orleans' human relations ordinance.
So, let there be no doubt about the bill's aim.
And what of Jindal?
Trahan told the committee he thinks parts of the Jindal Administration are "going off sort of on a rogue basis making these policy decisions."
Jindal's position on SB 217 is typically mealy-mouthed. "We're watching the bill through the process," said a spokesman. "We're against discrimination, but we don't believe in special protections or rights."
That's a frequent meme of modern-day segregationists. They frame anti-discrimination laws as bestowing "special protections" on gays, the handicapped and others. Let's be clear: Anti-discrimination laws are about equal protection, not special protection.
It will be interesting to see if Jindal can continue to hide on this issue, particularly as he positions himself as a potential vice presidential candidate. Does he really think he can sidestep this one and go national?
Jindal has always shown a taste for the Orwellian, but his cowardly position on SB 217 may prove particularly troublesome in light of the undeniable fact that, had his parents moved to the U.S. from their native India a generation earlier, his father might not have been able to attend LSU — and young Piyush Jindal might not have been accepted at Baton Rouge Magnet High — because the Jindals were not sufficiently "white."