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How Louisiana’s new laws are pushing boundaries in culture wars

In his first six months in office, Gov. Jeff Landry has pushed a broad conservative agenda that is altering Louisiana’s cultural landscape, from abortion rights to criminal justice to education.

That culminated this week with his signing of the first law in the nation mandating that the Ten Commandments be posted in every public school classroom in the state.

“If you want to respect the rule of law, you’ve got to start from the original lawgiver, which was Moses,” Landry, a Republican, said at a bill signing ceremony Wednesday in Lafayette.

Such a display, which sparked criticism among Democratic lawmakers and is already drawing the threat of legal challenges by civil liberties groups over its constitutionality, would have been unlikely in Louisiana before, even when a Republican, Bobby Jindal, last held the governor’s office eight years ago.

But now, the state is moving to the forefront of a culturally conservative wave typically associated with states such as Florida and Texas, said Pearson Cross, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.

Landry “sees this cultural struggle. He’s this culture warrior,” Cross said. “He’s comfortable in this, and he believes that being attacked or having to defend on these particular issues is a good thing. It demonstrates his bona fides because he’s taking on the woke left.”

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who had endorsed Landry’s election campaign last year, wrote on his social media platform Friday that the entire country should follow Louisiana’s lead in allowing the Ten Commandments in public schools.

What has allowed Landry’s agenda to sail through came after a crucial shift in statewide politics in early 2023, political observers say, when a Democratic lawmaker in northeast Louisiana changed his political affiliation to Republican, handing the GOP a supermajority in the House. Republicans already had one in the Senate, and with the election of Landry, a former state attorney general and congressman, as governor last fall, it cemented the party’s control of the executive branch and both chambers of the Legislature with a veto-proof majority.

“This is a singular moment in Louisiana politics when a very conservative Republican has been elected governor and he has the support of a supermajority of both the House and Senate,” Cross said. “For the last eight years, we’ve had a Democratic governor, and now there’s an enormous appetite for some of these conservative changes that couldn’t have been passed before.”

Landry succeeded Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who was term-limited after winning in 2015 and 2019.

During his campaign, Landry was vocal about his support for the state’s near-total ban on abortion and vowed to crack down on crime with tougher laws. In his first weeks in office, he called a special legislative session that focused on overhauling criminal justice.

Among the controversial bills that he signed into law: allowing the state to use nitrogen gas as a form of capital punishment; undoing a “raise the age” law to now treat all 17-year-olds who are charged with crimes as adults; essentially eliminating parole with few exceptions; and authorizing residents ages 18 and older to carry concealed handguns without permits, a law that goes into effect next month.

Another bill signed into law by Landry this week will allow judges to order certain sex offenders who commit crimes against children to undergo surgical castration — a first of any state in the nation. The law goes into effect in August. Other states, including Louisiana, make chemical castration legal for certain sex crimes.

The bill was proposed by a Democrat, but it was overwhelmingly opposed by Democrats and supported by Republicans.

And in another move that continues to place Louisiana in a unique position, Landry signed a measure into law last month that puts two medications used to induce abortions — mifepristone and misoprostol — onto the state’s list of controlled dangerous substances.

The law makes possession of the medications without valid prescriptions or orders from medical professionals punishable by up to five years in prison. While pregnant people who obtain the medications for their own consumption would not be subject to prosecution, according to the legislation, medical professionals have criticized the law, saying the drugs have uses outside of abortion care, including aiding in labor and delivery, treating miscarriage and preventing gastrointestinal ulcers.

Landry said in a statement that the law is “nothing short of common sense” and “protects women across Louisiana.”

But legal experts say further criminalizing actions in new ways doesn’t ensure deterrence and won’t reduce the prison population in Louisiana, which has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the country and disproportionately affects Black people, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.

“The special crime session was about punishment, not preventing crime from happening in the first place,” said William Snowden, an assistant professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. “Gov. Landry is trying to use old keys to open new doors despite having examples of how to best advance public safety in our state.”

It’s not only social and cultural issues raising concerns.

Steven Procopio, president of the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, which advocates for fiscal responsibility and government transparency, said groups such as his were worried after a bill that would have limited access to public records from the governor’s office had been proposed.

But the bill was withdrawn last month by the Republican senator who authored it after concerns about government openness.

Procopio said the large public outcry helped to reverse course, indicating how lawmakers can be swayed.

“People were really upset with some of the broad attempts to undermine public records,” he said.

Procopio said while there are other issues, including Landry’s control over the state Board of Ethics, that remain a concern, the governor’s attempt to overhaul the state constitution can be a positive. Still, he hopes that Louisianans will remain invested in what’s going on with their government.

“For people to express what they like or don’t like, they have to know what’s going on. But if things are done in secrecy, democracy starts to break down,” Procopio said. “These changes dealing with ethics or public records are really nonpartisan policies. If you can’t follow, then you can’t successfully lobby your own government.”

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