Arkansas’ would-be religious tyrants gather steam with ‘culture-war’ bills

January 23, 2023 6:30 am
ACLU Executive Director Holly Dickson speaks against Senate Bill 43. At left is bill sponsor Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch). (Photo by John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

ACLU Executive Director Holly Dickson speaks against Senate Bill 43. At left is bill sponsor Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch). (Photo by John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

I grew up Catholic in a deeply Catholic region of Louisiana. I don’t think I met any non-Catholics until after second grade. Imagine my surprise when I realized that not only were there Christians who worshiped differently from me but believed in a totally different Jesus. Imagine my consternation when I learned that some Christians believe I’m condemned to Hell because I was Catholic.

Of course, as I grew older I met and befriended non-Christians and non-believers. I learned that the world is a much more varied and culturally richer place with a wonderful cast of human beings, each with their own value, than any of us can imagine.

In such a world, it behooves each of us to respect, not fear, those whose beliefs and lives differ from our own, to love, not hate.

All of which is preamble to the unsettling feeling of sadness and growing worry that has come over me as the Arkansas Legislature begins to take up more “culture-war” legislation. From trying to regulate drag shows in public to stigmatizing the use of school restrooms to making criminals of anyone who advises someone on obtaining an abortion, it’s just downright depressing and infuriating.

Instead of debating bills of substance that would alleviate poverty, improve children’s lives, enhance citizens’ health, create affordable housing or address the existential issue of climate change, some legislators seem more invested in imposing their brand of Christianity on the rest of us.

Too many elected officials today seem to think that we should have a national religion and that it should be their brand of Christianity.

In the guise of protecting the innocence of children, state Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch) sponsored a bill (Senate Bill 43) to define and regulate a “drag performance” as an adult business. This is an obvious response to the recent growth of children’s reading hours at public libraries by drag performers and the proliferation of drag performances in other public spaces and on TV. Stubblefield insists that the bill’s five criteria, including an appeal to “prurient interest,” must be met before drag entertainment in public could be deemed an adult business.

But Stubblefield revealed his real motivation when he told a Senate committee last week that “as a Christian I believe — for example, in Deuteronomy 25 — I believe the Bible when it says if a man dresses like a woman and a woman dresses like a man, it is an abomination to God.”

Think about that. Based on that belief, most women today would be considered an abomination because they dare to wear pants. Heaven help us if Stubblefield or any other legislator takes those words literally.

Stubblefield also said he has a right to his beliefs under the U.S. Constitution and that the Bill of Rights didn’t come from the Constitution or from the government — “they came from God.”

With those rights, he said, comes a duty. Apparently, he feels it’s his duty to inflict his Old Testament view of the world on all Arkansans, whether they believe the same or not.

The First Amendment’s religious freedom clause comes first because the nation’s Founders believed that government-sponsored religion was responsible for much of the warfare and hatred they left Britain and Europe to escape. Therefore, the clause saysCongress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting its free exercise.”

Simply put, that means the United States does not have a national religion and that citizens are free to practice their own religion or no religion at all.

Too many elected officials today seem to think that we should have a national religion and that it should be their brand of Christianity.

Yet there are concerns about Stubblefield’s bill, and Perryville Republican Rep. Mary Bentley’s school bathroom bill, that go beyond their grounding in a disturbingly cruel faith.

Many people from the LGBTQ community who testified in passionate opposition to Stubblefield’s bill in the Senate committee hearing last week said the bill just puts another target individuals who are gay or who don’t conform to the gender identity on their birth certificates. At least one person who testified pointed out the higher likelihood of suicide among the transgender community because of discrimination and hateful attacks and said that bills like the anti-drag proposal only pile on the abuse.

The testimony didn’t sway the all-white, all-male committee.


Circling back to Stubblefield’s stated desire to protect the innocence of children, it’s worth noting that the standard conservative philosophy of personal responsibility and opposition to government overreach doesn’t seem to apply when legislators mount a moral crusade against things they don’t like.

“Children are being exposed today to things that 30, 40, 50 years ago we couldn’t even imagine,” he said.

That’s true. Who could imagine when I was a child that my grandchildren would be exposed to the terror of almost routine school shootings, the trauma of live-shooter drills or the conversion of school campuses into simulacrums of adult prisons. And, yet, our lawmakers refuse to take common-sense steps to prevent the continuing horror. Indeed, they expand the ability of any fool to equip himself with instruments of death.  

“It’s a shame we even have to bring up a bill like this to protect our children,” Stubblefield said.

You’re right, Senator. It’s a damn shame.


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Sonny Albarado
Sonny Albarado

In his 50-year career, Sonny Albarado has been an investigations editor, a business editor, a city editor, an environmental reporter and a government reporter at newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. He retired from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2020 after serving as projects editor for 12 ½ years and returned to professional journalism in 2022 to lead the Arkansas Advocate. He is a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and a current member of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.