Why Did Utah’s Senator Mike Lee Vote Against the Violence Against Women Act?

Why did Utah Senator Mike Lee vote against the renewal of the landmark Violence Against Women Act—the act widely credited with revolutionizing the handling of domestic violence by coordinating responses by law enforcement, the courts, and domestic violence community-based organizations?

A grassroots blogger and librarian in Utah posted the response she got from Lee’s office, after his February 12 “no” vote:

First, this issue is a state issue and outside the proper role of the federal government. Violent crimes are enforced almost exclusively by state governments and the Supreme Court has ruled that Congress has no authority to regulate domestic violence. States are better equipped to deal with these issues.

Second, the strings Congress attaches to federal VAWA funding restrict a state’s ability to govern itself. Congress should instead allow state and local leaders to have flexibility in enforcing state law instead of the one-size-fits-all federal requirements.

Third, current federal VAWA funding includes many instances of duplication and overlap with other programs and has long been criticized as highly inefficient. Senator Lee favors state autonomy and local control. He wants to remove the federal restrictions that prevent states and localities from efficiently and effectively serving women and other victims of domestic violence. He supporters [sic] eliminating programs that are duplicated elsewhere in the federal government. For these reasons he was unable to vote for the bill.

That’s right. Utah’s junior Senator would rather defund domestic violence community orgs and rollback crucial protections than risk a little inefficiency in overlapping state and federal jurisdictions.

Call it constitutional pharisaism.

Readers with a longer historical memory might remember that Senator Lee’s father Rex Lee, a former Solicitor General of the United States, developed the LDS Church’s legal rationale against the Equal Rights Amendment.

A rationale which mobilized against the elegant, rational simplicity of the amendment a parade of legal technicalities—jurisdictional issues, inefficiency—and a parade of potentially fearful outcomes like unisex bathrooms, same-sex marriage, and women in combat.

Thirty years later, the gays are getting married, career military women already serving in combat zones are finally getting recognized for their work, and—really—who doesn’t love those family-friendly unisex bathrooms at the airport? 

Women in combat: check. 

Unisex bathrooms: check. 

Gay marriage: on the way.

Violence Against Women Act: passed the Senate 78 – 22, no thanks to Senator Lee.

Equal Rights Amendment: unfinished business.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.