Controversy in Indiana, Victory in Nevada

By Sheila Freed

There has been a lot of news coverage the past several days about Indiana. The legislature there passed and the governor signed a new law designed to protect religious freedom. The backlash has been immediate and significant, because the bill is seen as discriminatory against the LGBT community and potentially other groups. Several large corporations who do business in Indiana have said they will change their plans because of this law, and the result will be lost jobs and lost revenue to the state. But for an upswell of public concern — including a pushback in the media and among its voters — Nevada could have seen the same scenario play out here.

Assembly Bill 277 was introduced in the Nevada Legislature on March 12, 2015. The next day it was referred to the Assembly Judiciary Committee. As of April 2, the bill had apparently died with no action. The “Nevada Protection of Religious Freedom Act” was nearly identical to the Indiana law. Defenders of the Indiana law said it’s just like a federal law passed in 1993, but in fact Indiana’s new law, and what could have been Nevada law, go much farther. Both say that a “person” has the right to practice religion free of government interference. However the definition of “person” which is specifically included in the proposed statute is a “natural person; or any form of business or social organization or other nongovernmental legal entity, whether or not the organization or legal entity is created, organized, or operated for profit.” The backlash in Indiana and potentially in Nevada is that this definition allows businesses to discriminate based on a claimed religious belief. The infamous Citizens United decision said that corporations have a right to free speech. This legislation effectively gives corporations freedom of religion as well. (Does that mean they have a conscience? Doubtful.)

There are a number of states that have similar “religious freedom” laws, most being in the Deep South. The Arkansas legislature just passed such a law, and even Wal Mart, based in Bentonville, Arkansas, is urging the governor not to sign it. Passage of AB 277 would have had huge implications for the tourist/hospitality industry in Nevada, and could very well have negated all the incentives the state has given to Tesla and other businesses to bring them here. But, more measured minds prevailed. Our legislators not only observed and took seriously Indiana’s ill-considered passing of their own bill; they did the right thing and left Nevada’s to die.

That’s advocacy in action. With so many potentially damaging bills coming up for committee vote or full-on assembly or senate vote as the 2015 session enters its second half, let’s assure our voices keep being heard.

— with contributions from Vic Williams

Cool Tools for Staying Informed … And Heard

By Sheila Freed

We are already a quarter of the way through the 120-day Legislative Session. There are about 1,100 Bill Draft Requests and in less than a month, they all must be introduced. Even people with strong interest in a particular issue can feel they’ll never successfully track what is going on.

Help is available, however. The Nevada Legislature has a wonderful website that enables private citizens not only to stay abreast of what’s going on, but to register their views. Let’s walk through a couple of these “cool tools.”

First, you may not know who your legislators are. Go to www.leg.nv.state.us, the Legislature’s home page. Down the right side is a list of topics. Find “Who’s My Legislator” and click on it. A window will open showing a map. In the top right corner is a space to put your home address. You’ll get back information on who your State Senator and Assembly Member are, complete with contact information.

If you want to learn more about that person, go back to the home page. Look at the top left corner where it says “Legislator Information.” Click on “Assembly” or “Senate” and then choose from the menu at the top of the page to get to an alphabetical list with each legislator’s background. There’s a ton of other information on the “Assembly” and “Senate” pages, including upcoming meetings and the daily calendar.

Politicians often find it safer to study a problem than actually take action to fix it. Have you ever wondered what happens to those studies? Back on the home page, right above “Assembly” and “Senate” is an option for “Research/Library.” Choosing that will get you to the home page for the Research Division of the Legislative Counsel Bureau. The Bureau’s reports on all kinds of policy issues are there.

If you’re interested in a particular topic, there’s a couple of ways to find all the bills that deal with that topic. On the Research Library page, scroll down to “Session and Interim Info” and find “Quick Look-Up by Bill or Subject. Using the subject search for the 2015 session will get you to the same alphabetical sort that is used to index the entire Nevada Revised Statutes, and you’ll find bills from Abandoned Property to Youth Parole Bureau. (Sorry, no Z’s.) If you click on the blue bill number, you’ll go to a page showing the current status of the bill, and a link to the text. As the bill goes through the committee process and the text is revised, you can follow the changes. Each new version shows in a different color.

Another way to find topics of interest is from the Legislature home page. Near the top of the list on the right side is “BDR List.” Clicking there will take you to a page where you can look at the “full list” or “divided list.” Choose “divided list” and you’ll get a search window. You can put in your Legislator’s name to see which bills that person has  sponsored, or you can put in a topic such as “education” or “health care.” This is not a comprehensive search, but it’s a start. Eventually there will be a blue number such as “AB 123” next to each BDR number. That’s the bill number once the BDR gets introduced as a bill. If you click on the blue, you go to the same place described earlier, with the status of the bill and a link to the text.

If you want to know why the language of a bill gets changed, go back to the page where you first looked for the text, the one that says “Status of Bill.” Toward the right, you’ll see information about the committees that have debated the bill. You can read the minutes of those meetings and look at the exhibits or handouts that are presented by people who testify about a bill.

So by now you’re well informed on the bills you have an interest in. You know how to contact your legislator because you looked at the “Assembly” and “Senate” choices on the legislative home page. Their email addresses and phone numbers are right next to their names, and it only takes a few minutes to express your views.

If you want to reach a wider audience, go back to the home page and scroll down the list on the right side. You’ll find “Share Your Opinion on Legislative Bills.” That opens a box where you can enter a bill number, then indicate “for” or “against” and add comments. Identifying information is required, to show you’re a live voter, not the creation of some activist or publicist. But here’s another cool thing: At the top of the “Share Your Opinion” box you can choose “View Comments.” Enter a bill number, and you’ll see all the comments others have made about that bill. You can choose “Reports” and see the results sorted in a dozen different ways. Reading the comments can be pretty entertaining.

So who needs video games? It’s possible to spend hours on the legislative website, getting smart and having fun. There’s no shortage of issues, many of them controversial. Part of our vocation as people of faith is to “speak truth to power,” and the webmasters at the Legislature make it easy. Lutheran-Episcopal Advocacy in Nevada (LEAN) urges you to do just that.

LEAN MLK Day event sheds light on urgent Nevada needs

Lutheran-Episcopal Advocacy in Nevada thanks everyone who helped with our event on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — all who attended, all who responded to our appeal for donations, all who stuffed backpacks, and the businesses and individuals who provided food. We especially thank our outstanding speakers, and Office Depot for the generous discount on school supplies.

Nevada Chief Justice James Hardesty speaks at LEAN's Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday event at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Reno, Jan. 19, 2015.

Nevada Chief Justice James Hardesty speaks at LEAN’s Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday event at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Reno, Jan. 19, 2015.

Volunteers prepare school materials for backpack stuffing at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Jan. 19, 2015

Volunteers prepare school materials for backpack stuffing at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Jan. 19, 2015

LEAN’s event on the King holiday was to learn about issues that will be coming up in the 2015 legislative session, and to do the “Backpack Challenge,” designed to demonstrate to legislators that our schools need proper funding. Those who attended heard speakers, some in Las Vegas, some in Reno, connected by video cast.

James Hardesty, Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court, was the featured speaker. He began by giving credit to the faith community for its advocacy in past years for rehabilitation and re-entry programs. He said it has had the effect of changing the culture at the Nevada Department of Corrections. Justice Hardesty described the work of the Nevada Commission on Administration of Justice, and shared some items the Commission will propose to the Legislature. Among those are uniform assessment tools, so that regardless where in the state one is, the same criteria will determine whether a person is fit to release on bail, or whether that person should be paroled. The Commission would like more money allocated to Drug Court and Mental Health Court.

Mr. Mike Raponi spoke about education. He is director of the State of Nevada Office of Career Readiness, Adult Learning, and Educational Options. Some exciting programs are gearing up to train Nevada’s workforce for the technical jobs of the future. Built into the program are incentives to stay in school and graduate on time.

Mr. Shane Piccinini spoke in Reno on behalf of the Food Bank of Northern Nevada. As the public policy advocate for the Food Bank, his agenda is ensuring that federal funding for food programs is not cut. It might be surprising that at the state level, there is sometimes resistance to federal food programs. There are start-up costs and matching-funds requirements that some legislators reject. Who knew there is a Governor’s Council on Food Security? This group is working with the Legislature to remove barriers to federal help for hungry people, especially school children.

The Reverend Lionel Starkes, chair of the Union of Black Episcopalians, spoke in Las Vegas. He recalled some of the inspiring words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He linked Dr. King’s words and actions to the biblical charge to proclaim freedom to the captives. He noted that many remain captive today—to racism, economic and educational inequality, and that it is incumbent on us in the faith community to continue to work for equality for all.