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Baptist Legislator Riles Blacks, Women

A moderate Baptist publisher turned conservative politician is making a name as a freshman member of the Georgia State Senate, sponsoring one bill that prompted a walkout by black legislators and another that critics say is anti-women.

Cecil Staton is president and CEO of Smyth & Helwys, a for-profit publisher of books and curriculum in Macon, Ga. It is the resource provider of choice for many churches aligned with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

A Republican elected to office last fall, Staton proposed Senate Bill 84, which would require a photo ID to vote and eliminate 12 forms of identification currently accepted at polls.

Staton said the bill is intended to cut down on voter fraud and avoid lawsuits over voter irregularities. After it passed March 11 along party lines, 32-22, the state’s Democratic caucus, led by black members, walked out in protest.

Democrats compared the effort to poll taxes, literacy tests and other laws aimed at suppressing black votes during segregation. Critics said the law would target elderly voters without driver’s licenses, many of whom are black.

“What’s happening today is just an updated form of Jim Crow,” Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said, according to the Associated Press. “You may be more polite about it, but we know who’s going to be disenfranchised.”

The bill would allow five forms of ID: a driver’s license or state-issued ID card, a government employee ID with photo, a U.S. passport or a military ID. It would give Georgia one of the country’s most restrictive voter ID laws. The state currently allows 17 forms of ID, including a utility bill, bank statement or government check with the voter’s name and address on it, and allows a voter to cast a provisional ballot if he or she has none of those.

“You are stabbing race relations in the back with this legislation, and I will not forget this,” Sen. Kasim Reed, D.-Atlanta and an African-American, said, quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

One black senator held shackles aloft in protest before the walkout. House Democrats, in a walkout over a similar bill, sang “Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me ‘Round” as they left.

Staton also is a lead sponsor of Senate Bill 174, which would allow health insurers to offer policies that don’t cover some medical procedures and drugs currently mandated by state law.

Supporters said it would make it easier for small businesses to offer scaled-down benefits for their employees, instead of dropping benefits altogether because mandates make them too expensive.

But critics said it would make optional certain women’s benefits, including women’s contraceptives and mastectomy treatment, that are now required.

“It’s a shame for Republican men to be in here doing this,” Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, and a former nurse, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s shame what we’re doing. This has not been thought out enough.”

Staton started Smyth & Helwys as an alternative press for moderate Southern Baptists in 1990. He entered politics in 2002, running unsuccessfully for Congress with a campaign that surprised many moderates because of overtures to the religious right.

In 2003 Staton launched a second publishing company, Stroud & Hall, to publish historical and political books. The first book, A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat, U.S. Sen. Zell Miller’s critical assessment of the Democratic Party, reached the New York Times best-seller list.

Miller’s next book, A Deficit of Decency, is due out in May. According to a press release, it expands themes in a speech by Miller on the Senate floor in February 2004.

In the speech, Miller decried the “culture of far-left America” and said the separation of church and state isn’t in the Constitution. He recommended a book by author David Barton, who contends that members of Congress who drafted the First Amendment expected basic biblical principles and values to be present in public life and not separate from it.

In his new book, Miller speaks candidly about why he chose to deliver a keynote speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention attacking his own party, according to a press release. One, he said, was terrorism. But he also “came to be repelled by the secularism,” which he says has captured the Democratic Party and “smothered its soul.”

The book’s foreward is by Fox News commentator Sean Hannity.

“Stroud & Hall is proud to be working with Zell Miller as his publisher on this timely new book,” Staton said in the press release. “The values Zell Miller advocates in A Deficit of Decency are the same issues that Americans yearn to see reflected in our culture and our government.”

Staton dropped the title of publisher at Smyth & Helwys when he ran for Congress in 2002. David Cassady, the current publisher and executive vice president, has in the past refused to discuss Staton’s involvement with the company since his election to the state Senate, saying EthicsDaily.com has a conflict of interest because the Baptist Center for Ethics also sells Sunday school curriculum.

Contact information on Stroud & Hall’s Web site lists a mailing address in Macon. Stroud & Hall shares a fax number with Smyth & Helwys, but the mailing address, zip code and local and toll-free phone numbers are all different.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.