State Capitol Week in Review – May 7, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – The legislature referred three proposed constitutional amendments to Arkansas voters.


In next year’s statewide general election in November, voters will decide whether or not the three amendments are written into the state Constitution.


Two of the proposed amendments originated in the Senate; the third originated in the House of Representatives.


Senate Joint Resolution 10, if approved by voters next year, would allow the General Assembly to call itself into session in the interim between regular sessions. Currently, the legislature meets every year in regular session. After regular sessions have adjourned, the legislature does not convene again until the regular session of the following year.


In the interim between regular sessions, the only time the legislature convenes is when the governor calls a special session.


SJR 10 would allow legislators to call themselves into special session without a call by the governor. It could happen by two possible methods. The President Pro Tem of the Senate and the Speaker of the House could issue a joint proclamation. Or, a proclamation could be issued by legislators, if two-thirds of each body signed it.


Similar to the calls for a special session that are issued by the governor, the legislative proclamation would have to list the items that can be considered. SJR 10 would not affect the governor’s power to call a special session.


SJR 14 is the second measure that originated in the Senate. Its title is “The Arkansas Religious Freedom Amendment.”


It would provide that the government shall not burden a person’s freedom of religion, except under limited circumstances when there is a compelling government interest in doing so, and the government chooses the least restrictive method of achieving that compelling interest.


SJR 14 states that “Governments should not burden religious exercise without compelling justification,” and that in a 1990 ruling “the United States Supreme Court virtually eliminated the requirement that the government justify burdens on religious exercise imposed by laws neutral toward religion.”


The 1990 case was out of Oregon, called “Employment Division v. Smith.” The two plaintiffs were members of a Native American church and also worked at a private drug rehabilitation facility. They were fired for ingesting peyote, a hallucinogenic drug, during a church ceremony.


The plaintiffs were denied unemployment benefits and they sued, arguing that the government had infringed on their First Amendment rights to freely exercise religion.

The majority opinion upheld the state government of Oregon and was delivered by Justice Antonin Scalia.


The third proposed amendment is in House Joint Resolution 1005. If approved by voters, it would require a 60 percent majority for approval of future proposed constitutional amendments.


In Arkansas, proposed amendments are placed on the ballot in two ways. The legislature can refer them, such as it did with SJR 10, SJR 14 and HJR 1005.


Also, citizens can place proposed amendments on the ballot by gathering on petitions enough signatures of registered voters. The minimum number of valid signatures is 10 percent of the number of votes cast in the prior election for governor.