Tag Archives: lawmaker

Wisconsin legislator holds Bible study sessions in Capitol office

A Republican legislator has been holding weekly Bible study sessions for lawmakers in his state Capitol office for the past three years, raising questions about where the line between church and state lies in the building.

Administrative rules require state employees to use state buildings only for official work.

Critics say the meetings are inappropriate, even though praying before legislative session days and religious displays in the Capitol rotunda have been upheld as legal.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, said the meetings create an impression that lawmakers care more about working for their god than the people.

“It signals impotence,” Gaylor said. “We are too inadequate to deal with the problems of our state, so we have to beg a deity (for help).”

Praying openly is common in the Capitol. The Senate and Assembly begin floor debates with a prayer, delivered either by a minister, some other religious figure or even a lawmaker. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that such pre-session prayers are constitutional. And over the holiday season, several religions put out displays in the Capitol rotunda. The state Department of Administration allows anyone who submits an application to the Capitol police to put up a display.

State Rep. Paul Tittl, of Manitowoc, describes himself as a follower of the Evangelical Free denomination, which teaches that the Bible is without error. He said he began holding the study sessions in his office as soon as he was sworn in to his first term in 2013. The sessions run from 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. every Wednesday and are open only to lawmakers, he said. Anywhere from four to a dozen legislators from both parties typically attend, including Catholic, Jewish, Methodist and evangelical lawmakers, he said.

“Faith is a huge part of my life,” Tittl said. “It doesn’t stop because I come to the state Capitol.”

Democratic Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, who is Jewish, said he regularly attends Tittl’s sessions because they offer a glimpse into other religions and a chance to connect personally with other legislators. He doesn’t see any problem with holding the meetings in Tittl’s office because the sessions don’t favor one religion, he said.

Tittl said the first email he sent on the state system was a message announcing he would hold the sessions. Since then, he’s sent one other message about the meetings on the state system, he said. He didn’t see any problem with the emails since legislators often use the state system to invite each other out to lunch or come to their offices for birthday cake, he said.

He said the meetings take place before his staff arrives for work and that they wouldn’t be allowed to attend, anyway, since the meetings are only for legislators.

Howard Schweber, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist who specializes in constitutional law, said he doesn’t see any problem with the sessions. The meetings are voluntary and Tittl has taken steps to make sure his staff isn’t forced to attend, Schweber said.

Courts have been lenient in allowing prayer to begin legislative sessions, when lawmakers’ staffers must be present so they almost certainly would permit such prayer sessions, Schweber said.

Wisconsin lawmaker arrested for drunken driving

A police report says a Wisconsin lawmaker arrested for drunken driving told an officer he had “five or six beers.”

Greenfield police on Oct. 31 released the dash cam video and the report about Rep. Josh Zepnick. The Milwaukee Democrat was stopped around 8:20 p.m. on Oct. 29.

The Journal Sentinel reports the video shows Zepnick’s car being pulled over after an officer saw him go through a red light. The video then shows Zepnick undergoing field sobriety tests, which police say he failed.

According to the police report, Zepnick refused to take a breath test. 

Zepnick’s sister, Jamie Lynn Zepnick, was struck and killed by a drunken driver while riding her bicycle in 1990.

Zepnick on Oct. 30 apologized for his deciding to drive under the influence. His attorney had no comment on Oct. 31.

Nevada lawmaker tries to quell slavery comment

A Nevada assemblyman apologized on Oct. 29 and criticized the media as he tried to explain his explosive comments that he would vote to allow slavery if that’s what his constituents wanted.

“The media is having a good time with a clearly facetious statement I made in a town hall meeting earlier this year,” freshman Republican Assemblyman Jim Wheeler said in a statement. “They’re attempting to spin an extreme example I used about supporting my constituents to accuse me of being racist.”

Wheeler of Minden said he intended his comments on slavery to be an extreme example of something unacceptable and hoped they would be taken that way.

“If my comments were taken with offense by anyone, I sincerely apologize,” he said.

Wheeler’s comments have been swiftly denounced by Nevada’s top elected Republicans and Democrats alike.

Fred Lokken, political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College, said Wheeler’s remarks were frightening.

“That kind of lack of moral compass is what has brought some really bad things into the world,” Lokken told The Associated Press. He said politicians are not elected to be “autotrons.”

“There is an arrogance that he’s just a pawn doing what his constituency wants,” said Lokken, who identified himself as a nonpartisan voter.

Wheeler’s comments surfaced on Oct. 28 after Laura Martin, communications director for Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, received a YouTube video link from someone sharing Wheeler’s comments about a proposed constitutional amendment on Nevada mine taxes.

Wheeler, speaking to the Storey County GOP Central Committee in August, addressed the mining question at the start of the roughly hourlong video clip.

“Then I just let it play while I did other things,” Martin said. About 40 minutes into it, she heard the comment about slavery and sent out a tweet.

“Just saw a video of Jim Wheeler saying he’d vote to bring back slavery if his constituents wanted it,” she tweeted.

Martin said that she knew the remarks were controversial but underestimated the reaction.

“I did not realize that it was going to blow up the way it has,” she said.

On the video, Wheeler says he believes it is his job to represent his constituents regardless of his own beliefs. He referenced an earlier blog by conservative activist Chuck Muth, who in June 2010 wrote about Wheeler’s candidacy and said, “what if those citizens decided they want to, say, bring back slavery? Hey, if that’s what they want, right Jim?”

Wheeler told his GOP audience he responded to Muth and said, “yeah, I would.”

“If that’s what they wanted, I’d have to hold my nose, I’d have to bite my tongue and they’d probably have to hold a gun to my head, but yeah … if that’s what the constituency wants that elected me, that’s what they elected me for,” he said.

Top Republicans, including Gov. Brian Sandoval and U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, and Democratic Party leaders and elected officials all quickly criticized Wheeler.

Assemblywoman Michelle Fiore, a conservative Las Vegas Republican, condemned Wheeler’s remarks.

“As someone who believes wholeheartedly in listening to our constituents, I’m confident that they would agree with me that there is no place in our society for the comments made by Assemblyman Wheeler who doesn’t even understand that the United States is a republic because we protect the voice of the minority,” she said.

The state Republican Party posted Wheeler’s page-long statement on its website. Chairman Michael McDonald did not respond to requests for comment.

In his statement Tuesday, Wheeler said, “Despite the media spin that claims I don’t think for myself, I give careful consideration to the votes I cast and I find that 99 percent of the time my constituents agree with me. That makes sense – they elected me because they know that my beliefs align with theirs.”

Wheeler’s multi-county district leans GOP by a 2-1 margin.

Lokken said the reasoning was flawed because it fails to recognize “that as an elected official he’s there for all of the people, not just those who voted for him.”

Russian lawmaker wants to deny gay parents custody of kids

A Russian lawmaker on Sept. 5 has proposed legislation to deny gay parents custody of their children.

A draft of the bill was published on the parliament website on Sept. 5. The measure would make “nontraditional sexual orientation” a basis for denying custody, according to The Associated Press. Other grounds include alcoholism, drug use, and abuse.

Earlier this year, Russia enacted legislation banning homosexual “propaganda” among minors. World leaders and human rights activists have condemned the measure, which has resulted in the arrest of citizens and tourists. Russia’s leaders defend the law, saying it protects child and doesn’t harm LGBT people.

The latest measure, introduced as the world’s attention was focusing on Russia and the start of the G-20 talks, was offered by Alexei Zhuravlev. He has said that homosexual ” the author of the bill, referred “propaganda” must be banned in public “but also in the family,” according to The AP.

Democrat barred from speaking after saying ‘vagina’ in abortion debate

A Michigan lawmaker said support and campaign donations were rolling in June 15, a day after she was barred from speaking in the state House because she used the word “vagina” during a debate on an anti-abortion bill.

Rep. Lisa Brown, a Democrat from suburban Detroit, was silenced after Republicans who control the chamber said she violated decorum. While speaking June 13 against a bill requiring doctors to ensure women aren’t coerced into ending their pregnancies, Brown told Republicans, “I’m flattered you’re all so concerned about my vagina. But no means no.”

Brown, of West Bloomfield, and another Democrat were told they couldn’t speak on the floor June 14, when the House spent hours considering legislation before a five-week recess. Rep. Barb Byrum, of Onondaga, said she was benched after referring to vasectomies.

“I really had no idea it would have this effect on people,” Brown said. “It’s an anatomically correct term for woman’s anatomy. It actually exists in Michigan statutes in three different places. This bill was about abortion. That doesn’t happen without a vagina.”

Email and phone messages seeking comment from Byrum and GOP leaders in the House weren’t immediately returned June 15.

“I ask all members to maintain a decorum of the House, and I felt it went too far,” Republican Floor Leader Jim Stamas told The Detroit News. He scratched Brown and Byrum from the list of speakers.

Republicans took control of the Michigan House from Democrats after the 2010 election. Rick Johnson, a Republican who was House Speaker until 2005, said the party in control has broad, unwritten discretion to police lawmakers on the floor.

“That comment would be very inappropriate,” he said. “You have young children? Is that something you want them to hear from your state rep?”

Johnson said he never prohibited a lawmaker from speaking for a day, as in Brown’s case, but he cut off certain privileges and found other ways to make his displeasure known.

“Every leader is different,” he said.

Rep. Lisa Lyons, R-Alto, said Brown’s comments were “disgraceful” and her “no means no” remark seemed to inappropriately compare the anti-abortion bill to rape. The House approved the bill on a 70-39 vote. The Senate probably won’t consider it until fall.

Brown said the incident has led to unsolicited campaign donations. She didn’t know how much but said she’d received many email notices from PayPal.

“The Constitution says free speech,” she said. “I don’t know why my rights should not be respected in a room where we take an oath to uphold the Constitution.”

Download a PDF of the current issue of Wisconsin Gazette and join our Facebook community.

Democratic lawmaker barred from talk after saying ‘vagina’

A Michigan lawmaker said support and campaign donations were rolling in June 15, a day after she was barred from speaking in the state House because she used the word “vagina” during a debate on an anti-abortion bill.

Rep. Lisa Brown, a Democrat from suburban Detroit, was silenced after Republicans who control the chamber said she violated decorum. While speaking June 13 against a bill requiring doctors to ensure women aren’t coerced into ending their pregnancies, Brown told Republicans, “I’m flattered you’re all so concerned about my vagina. But no means no.”

Brown, of West Bloomfield, and another Democrat were told they couldn’t speak on the floor June 14, when the House spent hours considering legislation before a five-week recess. Rep. Barb Byrum, of Onondaga, said she was benched after referring to vasectomies.

“I really had no idea it would have this effect on people,” Brown said. “It’s an anatomically correct term for woman’s anatomy. It actually exists in Michigan statutes in three different places. This bill was about abortion. That doesn’t happen without a vagina.”

Email and phone messages seeking comment from Byrum and GOP leaders in the House weren’t immediately returned June 15.

“I ask all members to maintain a decorum of the House, and I felt it went too far,” Republican Floor Leader Jim Stamas told The Detroit News. He scratched Brown and Byrum from the list of speakers.

Republicans took control of the Michigan House from Democrats after the 2010 election. Rick Johnson, a Republican who was House Speaker until 2005, said the party in control has broad, unwritten discretion to police lawmakers on the floor.

“That comment would be very inappropriate,” he said. “You have young children? Is that something you want them to hear from your state rep?”

Johnson said he never prohibited a lawmaker from speaking for a day, as in Brown’s case, but he cut off certain privileges and found other ways to make his displeasure known.

“Every leader is different,” he said.

Rep. Lisa Lyons, R-Alto, said Brown’s comments were “disgraceful” and her “no means no” remark seemed to inappropriately compare the anti-abortion bill to rape. The House approved the bill on a 70-39 vote. The Senate probably won’t consider it until fall.

Brown said the incident has led to unsolicited campaign donations. She didn’t know how much but said she’d received many email notices from PayPal.

“The Constitution says free speech,” she said. “I don’t know why my rights should not be respected in a room where we take an oath to uphold the Constitution.”

Download a PDF of the current issue of Wisconsin Gazette and join our Facebook community.

Miss. lawmaker receives death threats after anti-gay posts

A sheriff’s department says threatening calls made to a Mississippi lawmaker came from a cellphone with a New Jersey area code.

Republican Rep. Andy Gipson of Braxton and his family received death threats in mid-May after he posted threatening Bible verses on Facebook to express his opposition to same-sex marriage.

Gipson doesn’t have caller identification on his home phone, so he asked investigators to pull his phone records.

Simpson County Lt. Brian Buckley told The Clarion-Ledger that Gipson received several calls from the same number. Buckley said the phone records for the New Jersey number could be subpoenaed, which will help identify the service carrier and the phone’s owner.

“The problem that we might come into is if this is one of the throw-away phones you can buy at Walmart,” Buckley said.

Buckley said he plans to seek assistance from the state attorney general’s office or a federal agency.

Jan Schaefer, spokeswoman for Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, said that without complete facts about the calls made to Gipson, she couldn’t comment on whether the calls might violate the state’s law against cyber stalking.

Gipson is an attorney and Baptist minister. He’s also chairman of the Mississippi House Judiciary B Committee.

He posted his Facebook comments after President Barack Obama said he supports allowing same-sex couples to marry. Gipson wrote that homosexuality is a sin and referenced two Bible passages, one that includes a call for the stoning death of gay people. However, Gipson said in interviews that he would never wish for the murder of any person.

He said he received several phone calls, including the ones that had death threats. Investigators found calls that came from the east and west coasts.

After hearing the messages, Gipson sent his wife and their four children to visit family out of state as a precaution. They have since returned home.

Gipson said while the volume of calls received was initially frightening, he was comforted to learn that they came from only a handful of phone numbers.

“I was thinking that all these different people were calling my house from around the country,” he said.