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What's Wrong with Oklahoma?

By Richard L. Fricker
May 28, 2008

Democrats – divided into warring camps behind Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – might want to take a look at Oklahoma to see what the future could hold if their party fails to unite, letting right-wing evangelicals and neoconservatives have their way.

The Republican-dominated Oklahoma legislature is defining the frontier of xenophobic immigration laws, anti-Muslim bigotry, gay bashing and encouragement of gun-toting students – with Democratic legislators often too timid to resist.

Rep. Randy Terrill, Republican chairman of the Revenue and Taxation Committee, has emerged as a hero of the “protect our borders” crowd by authoring a law – known as HB1804 – that makes it a felony even to give an illegal immigrant a ride.

You also can’t provide education, healthcare and many other services to undocumented immigrants, including infants. And, police are required to check the immigration status of anyone “suspected” of being in this country illegally.

If you thought such a draconian measure might face stiff opposition – or at least a drawn-out political battle – you’d be wrong. The bill sailed through the Oklahoma House, 88-9, with 35 of the 44 Democrats joining the Republicans, and then passed the Senate on a 41-6 vote with two-thirds of the Democrats lining up with Republicans.

After the law’s passage, its extreme – one might say unchristian – features prompted virtual declarations of civil disobedience from the Southern Baptist Convention and the Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches, which announced they would not curtail aid to anyone.

Terrill then attacked Roman Catholic Bishop Edward Slattery of Tulsa as “misguided,” accusing Catholics of opposing the law out fear that it would curtail a growth in population and thus revenues for the church.

Terrill followed up his legislative victory by floating a “son of 1804,” a bill that would forbid the issuance of birth certificates to a child if one parent was an illegal alien. That bill also sought confiscation of property for anyone caught violating HB1804.

The property-confiscation idea, however, was deemed too radical by the Oklahoma business community, which saw it as a threat to corporate owners. So, the follow-up bill got sidetracked.

Undeterred, Terrill proposed another anti-immigrant bill to make English the official language of Oklahoma.

When that bill died on a procedural vote in the Senate, Terrill enlisted the Washington lobby group ProEnglish, whose specialty is robo-calling, to make constituency calls to state senators.

One senator took umbrage and forwarded his calls to Terrill’s office. Furious at this “cowardly act,” Terrill crossed the rotunda threatening to “whip his ass.”

Though Terrill’s pressure tactics failed to revive the bill, it is expected to become a hot-button election issue this fall.

Meanwhile, the Oklahoma business community, which mostly sat on the sidelines as HB1804 was passed, is now having second thoughts, worrying that the new law has cut into the labor force and thus corporate profits.

A significant number of Mexicans, both legal and illegal, have left the state to avoid harassment, while other laborers are living in fear.

The Gay Threat

As Terrill and his supporters mounted legal assaults against non-English-speaking immigrants, Republican colleague Rep. Sally Kern focused on what she viewed as an even graver danger – gays and lesbians. In April, she went before a local GOP meeting and labeled that threat worse than the one from al-Qaeda:

“Studies show that no society that has totally embraced homosexuality has lasted more than, you know, a few decades. So it’s the death knell of this country. I honestly think it’s the biggest threat our nation has, even more than terrorism or Islam. … which I think is a big threat. Okay?

“’Cause what’s happening now is they are going after, in schools, two year olds … and this stuff is deadly, and it’s spreading, and it will destroy our young people and it will destroy this nation.”

When her comments showed up on YouTube, Kern claimed her comments had been taken out of context and expressed outrage that they would be posted on the Internet. However, she referenced the Bible and refused to apologize.

Despite complaints from around the country, Kern and Oklahoma’s Republican leaders held fast behind her anti-gay positions. Reports from inside the GOP caucus described Kern receiving a standing ovation from the party faithful a couple of days after her statements were made public.

Kern’s supporters also staged two rallies at the Capital Building, with one drawing nearly 2,000 people.

“I told the people when I was running for this office that I was a Christian candidate and that I believed we were in a cultural war for the very existence of our Judeo-Christian values,” Kern declared.

In a similar vein, Republican Rep. Rex Duncan concentrated on the threat from Islam, rebuffing a gesture of multicultural goodwill when American Muslims on the Ethnic American Advisory Council sent each legislator a copy of the Quran in honor of Oklahoma’s centennial celebration.

Duncan refused to accept his copy saying, “Most Oklahomans do not endorse the idea of killing innocent women and children in the name of ideology.” Seventeen other House Republicans joined Duncan in spurning copies of Islam’s holy book.

However, Duncan’s rationale – decrying Islam as a uniquely violent religion – flew in the face of historical and Biblical evidence that implicated Jewish and Christian communities in horrendous violence against the innocent as well.

For instance, the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers recounts Moses’s destruction of the Midians, including the slaughter of boys and the enslavement of girls. During the Crusades, Christian forces famously butchered the Muslim inhabitants of Jerusalem.

Indeed, the history of Christianity – a religion based on the peaceful teachings of Jesus – has been remarkable in its bloodletting against non-Christians, from the Inquisition and anti-Jewish pogroms in Europe to the genocide against the “heathen” natives living in the New World and the barbarities against African slaves brought to the New World.

Though several interfaith groups expressed dismay at Duncan’s denunciation of Islam, the Rev. Anthony Jordan, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, said he did not fault the legislators for their action repudiating the Quran.

The Oklahoma legislature also responded to concerns about mass shootings on campuses by deliberating on a proposal advocated by extreme elements of the gun lobby, to permit all university students to carry guns to classes so they could defend themselves in case a mad gunman went on a rampage.

However, the idea of turning colleges into a modern version of the Wild West died in a fit of sobriety.

Still, the question remains: Why have these sorts of comments and such legislation gained traction in Oklahoma and other parts of the United States?

Some political analysts suggest part of the reason is that Democrats so dread coming under attack from the evangelical Right that they stay silent or acquiesce to proposals that otherwise might be transformed into campaign attack ads against them.

Election 2008 could be a moment when this surge of theocracy tinged with white racialism might finally be turned back. But, then again, enough Democrats may find it more appealing to nurse their grievances from the bruising Obama-Clinton race than to find some common ground.

Richard L. Fricker is a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based freelance reporter/writer and two-time winner of the American Business Press Editors Award for Investigative Journalism. Fricker can be reached at .

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