Monday, February 20, 2012

Bad Oklahoma Bills: Pursuing Inequality--even if it costs the state money and diminishes local liberty, because increasing inequality is apparently THAT important

It’s hard to keep up with all the bad bills introduced by members of the Oklahoma legislature. But, as a public service, I thought that in the next few posts I’d hit on a few of the biggest clunkers. In the first post of this series, I begin with a pair of bills introduced by the Republican state representative Mike Reynolds.

The first of Reynold’s disturbing bills, and the one that I think has received the most public attention, is HB 2195. Thankfully, it was just today effectively killed by a House committee, and for good reason. But it’s a shame that Oklahoma’s legislature needs to expend time and energy on bills such as this one.

This bill has been described as an effort to reinstate, in the Oklahoma National Guard, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy regarding gays serving in the military--the policy that was recently repealed at the federal level. In fact, however, HB 2195 would apparently have gone further, permitting officials to questions soldiers about their sexuality and dismiss them based on what was learned. That is, it’s DADT without the “DA,” thereby allowing for witch hunts based on sexual orientation.

One's sexuality has no bearing as such on one’s ability to perform the duties of a soldier in the National Guard. What Reynolds was proposing, therefore, was to write unjustified discrimination into state law. He seems to thinks this is a good idea: legal discrimination that justifies firing people based on personal characteristics that don’t interfere with job performance.

The reason DADT was ultimately, finally repealed at the national level is because the obvious injustice of such discrimination finally won out over deep-seated anti-gay prejudice. But some have sought to justify the discrimination by arguing that private sexuality somehow is a relevant consideration for doing the kind of work that soldiers do. Usually, their argument invokes “morale.”

Now it is true that if a military organization is riddled with prejudice against a certain class of people, there can be problems if that class of people is allowed to serve. But surely the solution is not to pander to the prejudice—to legislate in favor of the “morale” of those who harbor prejudice against people fully capable of performing the job. If you have prejudices that interfere with your ability to work with people of a certain class, then you have a characteristic that interferes with your ability to do your job. Your prejudice interferes with your job performance, and you should be fired—not the person against whom your prejudice is directed.

It’s also worth noting that passage of this bill would have put the state National Guard at odds with federal level policy, jeopardizing millions in federal funding. Reynolds wanted so badly for Oklahomans to be able to unjustly discriminate against sexual minorities that he was willing to risk losing the state valuable resources for the sake of this cause.

Reynold’s other bad bill, HB 2245, is a bit less well-publicized and, as far as I know, has not yet been killed. Like HB 2195, this bill is also aimed at enabling discriminatory practices in government employment. That’s right: Reynolds is such a fan of engaging in discrimination that he wants to use his position as a state legislator to protect those who practice discrimination, rather than protecting their victims.

HB 2245 is written in response to recent efforts by local municipalities to include the protection of sexual minorities (lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered persons) in their anti-discrimination ordinances. HB 2245 seeks to prevent such protections. The state government currently fails to mention LGBT public employees within its own anti-discrimination policies, so Reynolds’ bill works by prohibiting city and county governments from protecting from discrimination any group not explicitly protected at the state level. If passed, the bill would invalidate a number of existing local ordinances, including the one in Oklahoma City.

So, once again, Reynolds wants to protect the discriminator rather than the victim of unjust discrimination. That, after all, is what’s accomplished by HB 2245: existing policies protecting victims of LGBT discrimination are repealed and the world (or at least the state of Oklahoma) is made safe for those who want to discriminate.

And the discrimination in question here is clearly unjust, insofar as it makes private sexuality a criterion for employment—even though there is no good reason to think one’s private sexuality has any bearing on one’s capacity to fulfill the responsibilities of a city job. After all, no city job I know of requires the city employee to have sex with someone as part of their job duties. If makers of heterosexual pornography want to discriminate based on sexual orientation, I can see that being relevant. But last I checked, your ability to do the bureaucratic work of city government isn't a function of who you're attracted to sexually.

Furthermore, the majority of Oklahomans have long stood behind the conservative principle of limiting the authority of higher levels of government in order to maximize local autonomy. But passing this bill would be a precedent-setting expansion of the state’s power to intrude on local affairs. The key question is on what basis should higher levels of government have the authority to intrude on local autonomy?

HB 2245 answers this question in a way that, put bluntly, seems to be the very opposite of what makes sense. Local communities often have unique needs. This fact is best recognized when municipalities retain the right to construct policies that, while consistent with broad state requirements, can be tailored to meet local needs by going beyond what is mandated at the state level. HB essentially denies municipalities this right in the area of protecting threats to equality. I could see stepping in on local automony for the sake of promoting equality--but for the sake of inequality? Really?

I can only blink in mute astonishment.

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