The Arkansas Senate on Monday (Feb. 20) rejected two joint resolutions by Republican Sen. Jason Rapert of Bigelow to ban same-sex marriage and abortions, but the quest by state lawmakers in the 2017 session to convene a Convention of States to amend the U.S. Constitution may not be over yet.
The debate over Senate Joint Resolutions 7 and 9 for the purpose of amending the U.S. Constitution to aggregate with other states to overturn Supreme Court decisions on traditional marriage and right to life pitted Rapert against Democrat and Republican members of the Senate who expressed concerns about a possible “runaway convention” and personal freedoms.
In asking his fellow senators to support a so-called “countermand amendment” to the U.S. Constitution to limit the reach of the federal government under Article V, Rapert said Arkansas and a majority of states that agree on such amendments would be able to “correct errors in the Constitution.”
“Members, what I am stating here is the acknowledgement simply that I understand the Supreme Court’s rule – it struck down all the 40 states and their laws as it relates to the marriage of a man and a woman,” Rapert argued. “We got two options here, and those options are under Article V and they do not lead you to a federal courtroom.”
Article V provides that upon the application of two-thirds of the state legislatures, Congress shall call a convention of the states to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Tried but never before successful, Rapert’s resolution proposed two called conventions to enact measures that would define marriage as “the union of one man and one woman” and provide “that every human being” is entitled to the “right to life.”
In the convention, a majority of states must agree on amendments that must then be approved by 38 states. All previously enacted amendments have been initiated by Congress. Rapert told the Senate panel that they would be standing up for the Arkansas Constitution by backing both of his resolutions for two issues that have divided the country for several years. In making his point for ratifying amendments to ban same-sex marriage and abortion, Rapert compared his resolutions to past efforts to amend the Constitution to end slavery, and give women and 18-year old’s the right to vote.
“I am not asking you to do something unlawful. I am not even asking you to do something that is risky because the … U.S. Constitution has 27 amendments,” said the central Arkansas lawmaker.
After Rapert’s fervent speech, Republican Sens. Trent Garner and Blake Johnson of El Dorado and Corning separately posed several questions about the possibility of a “runaway constitutional convention,” or a situation where a called convention exceeds the authority granted by Congress and states decide to take up multiple issues. For example, some critics have said such a convention could be used for unaccountable issues such as giving states the right to secede or adding a balanced budget amendment. In response to repeated questions about such a scenario, an exasperated Rapert replied “hypothetical red herrings are not what I’m here to talk about.” The senator then launched an aside about criticism he has received as being the “most dangerous man in the legislature” for taking a stance on such issues.
“All because I have stated that marriage is important and life is important and our Constitution allows us to take a stand under Article V,” he said.
Johnson, however, told Rapert he appreciated the stance he was taking, but voiced to the Faulkner County lawmaker that his methods were ill-considered.
“I view you not as dangerous at all, (and) I appreciate your efforts, but I don’t know if I agree with what you are wanting to do,” Johnson told Rapert. “Marriage is not in the purview of the federal government; it lies in the purview of the state. I think as a state we have defined that authority and courts have overturned that. That is something we need to take care of (through the courts).”
Also speaking against the resolution, Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield of Little Rock told her fellow senators they couldn’t pass a bill outlawing everything that personally offends them.
“Some things that we do personally offends other folk,” Chesterfield said. “But in this country – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ought to be basic concepts that are protected for everybody.”
Following Chesterfield’s speech and another appeal by Rapert to support SJR7, Rapert’s same-sex marriage ban proposal garnered only 17 “yeas” and 7 “nays,” falling short of the 18 votes needed for Senate approval. Many Republican lawmakers did not vote when the roll was called the first time, but several gave Rapert’s resolution a “thumbs up” on the second tally when it was clear the votes would fall short. There were also 10 senators who did not vote on the resolution out of the 34 votes.
Afterward, a disappointed Rapert came back to the Senate podium to pitch for SJR8, offering a similar impassioned speech to ask his fellow lawmakers to support a called convention to ban abortion.
“Every single one of us sitting here today has an opportunity to take a stand,” Rapert said. “And you know what, we have religious freedom in this country. I have religious freedom in this nation, and I have never taken more flack for anything in my life, simply for standing up for two issues that are fundamental to who we are.”
Still, the Senate similarly rejected SJR8 along the same lines as his first proposal. The final was 17-6 with three members not voting. After both proceedings, the official vote for both resolutions was expunged from the record, which will allow Rapert to bring the resolutions up again for consideration. He’s vowed to do so.
Last week, the House rejected HJR 1022 by Rep. Rick Beck, R-Center Ridge, an Article V resolution to the U.S. Constitution to limit the reach of the federal government. Rapert was also a Senate co-sponsor of the legislation that failed on the House floor by a vote of 32-56.