Commentary: Price tags for pandering

By John Krull
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS – Years ago, the members of the Indiana General Assembly set themselves a task.

They wanted to approve a measure that would allow the state of Indiana to post the Ten Commandments on the Statehouse lawn.

John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

Column by John KrullMany, perhaps even most, of the legislators knew it was a foolish quest. Courts around the country consistently had ruled that posting the Ten Commandments on public grounds violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

Still, they persisted. The effort played well with certain Hoosier voters – and the legislators could raise money from those voters by touting their struggles with godless nitpickers who wanted to defend the U.S. and Indiana constitutions.

At the time, I was the executive director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, now the ACLU of Indiana.

Everyone in the legislature knew the ICLU was going to sue the state to stop the Ten Commandments monument from ever going into the ground. Most of them knew that we were going to win, too. And, because the people challenging a constitutional violation can collect legal fees from the government when they win – it’s a kind of check on government officials wantonly violating the state’s and the country’s fundamental law – the lawmakers knew we’d have a pretty big payday when we did tiumph.

That’s why they had a clever, clever joke about the Ten Commandments legislation. They called it “the ICLU appropriations act.”

After delivering that thigh-slapper, they’d inevitably hurry off to the well of either the Indiana Senate or the House of Representatives. Once there, they’d dislocate their shoulders patting themselves on the back for their records of fiscal restraint or their devotion to constitutional principles.

Their “ICLU appropriations act” joke may not have been funny, but it was on the mark. We collected around $100,000 in fees from the state of Indiana when we won the suit.

Try not to think about the difference that money might have made in your child’s school or even plugging potholes in the street in front of your house.

A story in the National Law Journal now reports that the state of Indiana will pay two groups that led the fight to overturn Indiana’s ban on same-sex marriage $650,000 in legal fees.

Again, try not to think of the other ways that money could have been spent.

This is not Indiana’s only costly excursion into pandering. Just in recent years, Indiana lawmakers have decided to charge ahead with measures regarding immigration and drug-testing welfare recipients that already were before the courts elsewhere on constitutional grounds.

Prudence – real fiscal restraint – would have called for lawmakers to wait until the courts had spoken on the constitutional issue before rushing invitations to expensive litigation into state law. But that would have required some maturity of judgment and the discipline not to pander to special-interest groups who use hot-button issues as an endless source of fundraising appeals.

Our lawmakers don’t have that maturity or that discipline.

That’s why they are hurrying into law a so-called religious freedom bill that is nothing more than an attempt to do an end-around the courts’ rulings on same-sex marriage. If it becomes state law, it will face a legal challenge. Given where the courts are on same-sex marriage, the state likely will lose.

And Hoosier taxpayers will have to fork over another six figures in legal fees.

There are other states adopting supposed religious freedom laws. We could save ourselves the money and see if those laws are upheld before we act, but that would mean that special-interest groups and legislators here in Indiana who hate gay marriage couldn’t use the issue to raise millions of dollars.

So, really, the tax money that you’re spending on these hot-button fights that could be settled elsewhere at no cost to you is an investment. It keeps the lawmakers and special-interest groups who push for these constitutionally dubious measures in the style and comfort to which they have become accustomed.

Don’t you feel better knowing that?

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 website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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