By STEVEN NALLEY
Mississippians from Starkville and surrounding areas gathered to speak and hear speeches at a public hearing Tuesday at the Bost Conference Center to discuss three constitutional initiatives appearing on the general election ballot this November.
The first and most debated initiative discussed, with nine public comments, was an initiative to define the term “person” as including every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or their equivalents.
There were only four public comments on the second initiative, a measure requiring Mississippians to submit government-issued photo identification to vote.
This third initiative would force state and local governments to wait 10 years after acquiring property by eminent domain before conveying it to individuals or private businesses.
All but one of six public comments on the eminent domain initiative were supportive.
Public discussion of each initiative was prefaced by a five-minute “pro” argument from a sponsor of each initiative, followed by a “con” argument of equal length from an opponent contacted by Hosemann’s office.
The sponsor for the personhood initiative was Brad Prewitt, Tupelo attorney and former campaign manager for Thad Cochran. He said support for the initiative could be found not only in the Book of Genesis, but also in the writings of America’s founding fathers and in existing Mississippi statutes. He also said opponents were mistaken to argue the initiative was a ban on contraception, in vitro fertilization or non-embryonic stem cell research.
“This is the civil rights cause of our age,” Prewitt said. “If you don’t protect people at their youngest, then how are we to protect them at their oldest?”
Jonelle Husain made the opening argument against the personhood initiative. She said if she had gotten pregnant when she was raped at the age of 27 and this initiative had been in place, she would have had to carry the pregnancy to term. She said the amendment treats rape as an inconvenience and women as second-class citizens.
“Do you really want a state where your daughters are stripped of their autonomy and valued only for their ability to bear children?” Husain asked. “This amendment justifies the unequal treatment of women.”
There were two more comments opposed to the initiative than there were in favor of it. One opposing comment came from Sheila Haley, of Kemper County.
“I’m Jewish, and you know what I think?” Haley asked. “I believe life begins when you take that first breath. What you’re trying to do with this amendment is institutionalize a religious belief.”
After citing Psalm 139:13 to support the initiative, Dana Copeland, of Greenwood Springs, said women who have abortions often regret them.
“Ask a post-abortion woman,” Copeland said. “Ask me.”
The sponsor for the voter identification initiative was District 37 State Representative Gary Chism. He said if people need to show an ID to write a check, board a plane or rent a movie, they should need an ID to vote. Chism also said voters should consider the precedent set in other states and in the Supreme Court of the United States.
“Thirty states require an ID, and 14 require a photo ID,” Chism said. “This amendment is just like the Indiana amendment that the Supreme Court already approved.”
Bear Atwood, interim legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, gave the opening “con” argument. She said while the initiative lists no charge for voter ID cards themselves, there are costs associated with the legal documents needed to get approved for a voter ID card. These include documents like Social Security cards and birth certificates that many may not have readily available, Atwood said, especially for Mississippians in rural areas and victims of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.
“Those fines and charges add up, and what they add up to is a poll tax,” Atwood said. “In these days of low voter turnout, our democracy cannot afford to lose a single eligible voter.”
Gary Chesser, organizer for the Starkville TEA Party, said STP was one of the organizations that gathered signatures for the amendment, and his expectation it would become a racial issue was subverted.
“We collected as many black people’s signatures as white people’s signatures,” Chesser said.
Albert Gore, Jr., chairman of the Oktibbeha County Democratic Party, said the ID requirement for voters would be like the ID requirement intended to keep people under 21 from drinking.
“If they’re under 21, you can be assured they have more than one ID, and they all say they’re 21,” Gore said. “This law will not prevent those who want to cheat from cheating.”
The sponsor for the eminent domain initiative was David Waide, president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau. Waide said the amendment would allow Mississippians to take back property rights lost in the Kelo vs. City of New London case, where the Supreme Court found constitutional the use of the government’s eminent domain power on behalf of private parties.
“The Kelo case could have happened in Madison with the Nissan plant, but the jurors made the right decision,” Waide said. “You don’t have to be afraid that the government will take your land except for a true public use.”
Columbus attorney Gordon Flowers made the opening opposing argument. He said he doesn’t like eminent domain and believes in private property rights, but there are occasions where they should be used, and the initiative stands in the way on many of those occasions.
“It will do irreparable damage to our economy,” Flowers said. “It’s not about preserving private property, if you read the amendment.”
One of the six supporting comments from the public came from Douglas Yelverton of Columbus, who said he did not want to lose farm land he had developed for years to local industry.
“I can see Severstall from my house,” Yelverton said. “I don’t want Severstall to come take my land.”