Local legislators tout 'yes' votes to define women, men

Apr. 26—A bill passed by the Oklahoma Legislature defines a man and a woman, and local elected officials said they all voted for it.

Former Tahlequah Mayor Sue Catron, during the April 26 Legislative Briefing, asked the panel why they voted to pass House Bill 1449, which is known as the Women's Bill of Rights.

"Reading from the summary, the measure authorizes the state and political subdivisions to establish distinctions between sexes when such distinctions are substantially related to an important government objective. And the measure authorizes... the collection of data related to the identification of any natural person's sex," Catron said.

She wanted to know why this is needed and why it is good for Oklahomans — woman in particular.

State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-District 9, said there was a lot of controversy with this measure and it required almost two hours of debate.

"The main focus was to make sure we identified what is a woman, what is a man," Pemberton said. "Was it totally necessary? I don't know if it was totally necessary, but it defines what a woman is, a man is, a father, a husband, and basically that going forward in statutes, we know what those distinctions are."

State Sen. Blake "Cowboy" Stephens, R-District 3, said that unfortunately, society has to run legislation to make sure people don't go into restrooms in which they don't belong. He said it was important to keep women and children safe in bathrooms, athletic facilities, locker rooms, domestic violence centers and prisons.

State Rep. David Hardin, R-District 6, also identified it as a protective measure.

"For whatever reason, we are putting one gender against another in sports, and it is something we have to do to protect everyone's rights," he said.

State Rep. Bob Ed Culver, R-District 4, said there are two sexes: a man and a woman.

"We need to protect both and we hope this bill will get this done," Culver said. "It's not that big a problem in Cherokee County, but it is across the state. This is one fix we voted on to get that accomplished, so men and women are separate individuals."

Jonathan Hook, a member of Tahlequah Resource Outreach Team, asked the local lawmakers what they have done to address homelessness in Cherokee County.

Much of the problem has to do with addiction, but mental health issues are also a factor, Pemberton said.

"[The reason] a large percentage are the street is because of mental health," Pemberton said. "That's something the Legislature is working on and [Sen.] John Haste from Tulsa has taken the lead on that."

Legislation has been passed to offer more mental health assistance at all age levels, Pemberton said.

Hardin said that when he worked in law enforcement, the state of Oklahoma poured a lot of money into mental health, but from 1981 through the mid-'90s, those funds dwindled.

"We need to [determine] if it is a mental issue or do they need training to get them into the workforce or long-term housing," Hardin said. "I'm hoping the new leadership is more open to pushing money to this issue."

Culver said the House's and Senate's budgets increased for Human Services.

"The House increased Human Services' [budget], which covers the homeless and mental health," Culver said. "So the appropriation was $954 million, which is a $45 million increase. We recognize the problem, and we are trying to get money into it to alleviate that problem."

Christopher Weir, Democratic candidate for District 4 — Culver's seat — asked why the panelists voted for Senate Bill 36, which allows chaplains and religious figures to serve as counselors in public schools.

Culver said acknowledged a separation of church and state is needed. Hardin said the bill required a person to have a degree for that position.

"I go back on my Christian faith — Jesus didn't have a degree," Hardin said. "But we do need to vet who goes in those programs and I voted no on that."

Pemberton said elected school board members have the responsibility of making those decisions.

"Local control has always been big. If they feel someone is qualified to do counseling but at the same time be there to act as a chaplain, I don't really have any objections," he said.

After the meeting, Weir spoke about the representatives' answers regarding how they voted on this issue and what he believes really happened.

"Culver said we needed to have separation of church and state, but then he voted for [the bill]," Weir said. "Hardin didn't vote at all, so they don't know what they are voting on to be able to say they have an informed decision to make on this bill."

Weir thinks the topics and issues elected officials chose to push forward in the House and Senate are "identity politics and intentionally divisive."

"I think they do that to keep ruffling feathers and keep people voting, but at the same time, it turns people off from voting," Weir said. "I would like to see a lot more bills that actually pertain to Oklahomans' lives."

What's next

The final Legislative Briefing for the 2024 session is June 14, 7:30 a.m., at Go Ye Village.