Idaho politicians sure like to squander public dollars on lost legal causes. Then again, it’s not their money.
The latest example is a bill adopted by the Legislature on Monday that permits the Bible in public schools as a reference guide. It’s the only religious text allowed. If challenged in court, it doesn’t have a prayer.
Attorney General Lawrence Wasden told legislators the Idaho Constitution forbids such a law. You don’t need a law degree to understand the meaning of this passage covering public schools: “No books, papers, tracts or documents of a political, sectarian or denominational character shall be used.”
The House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, waves that off, saying the “little Supreme Court in my head says this is OK.” The big Supreme Court in Boise will simply read the state’s founding document, which has stricter limits on religious texts than U.S. Constitution.
Seeing the obvious legal challenge ahead, a bipartisan group of lawmakers tried to toss the bill a lifeline by changing “Bible” to “religious texts,” which would at least demonstrate the state isn’t endorsing one religion over another.
But the House shot down the amendment 52-15. Rep. Dixon explained that the law needed to be exclusive to the Bible, because it’s the only religious text “under attack.” It would take an amazing feat of judicial activism to swallow that argument. Dixon also said other states have passed such laws and they’ve withstood legal challenges. But those states aren’t subject to the plain language of the Idaho Constitution.
In April 2014, Attorney General Wasden told The Spokesman-Review’s editorial board, “There are people like me who read the Constitution and believe we should do what the Constitution says; there are other folks who kind of think that they should follow a certain set of philosophical viewpoints.”
“The rational Republicans want to sit down and read the Constitution and do what it says,” Wasden said.
But they were easily outvoted on the Bible bill, because while taxpayers have much to lose, politicians have much to gain by taking the “righteous” path. Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, warned that the state could spend up to $400,000 defending the law. He said his vote was against “needlessly wasting taxpayers’ dollars.”
The state lost nearly $1 million last year defending unconstitutional laws on issues such as gay rights, abortion and demonstrations at the State Capitol. And that was before its “ag-gag” law, which outlawed surreptitious videotaping of agricultural operations, was shot down by the U.S. District Court on First Amendment and equal protection grounds.
In 2014, legislative leaders authorized spending on outside legal counsel to pursue a legal strategy for “taking back” federal land. They went around Wasden after he kept pointing to this line in the state constitution: “The people of the state of Idaho forever disclaim the unappropriated public lands that lie within the borders of our state.”
If lawmakers have issues with the state constitution, they should amend it. Ignoring it has proven to be expensive and ineffective.
To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on “Opinion.”
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