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story.lead_photo.caption Jerry Cox

A Christian group has begun rallying churches and abortion opponents against a lawsuit-limiting proposal that's on the Arkansas ballot this fall.

The group says limiting damages awarded in lawsuits sets an arbitrary value on human life, is contrary to anti-abortion beliefs, and conflicts with biblical principles of justice and helping the poor.

So-called tort reform has been a relatively easy sell in other Republican-controlled states, and backers of the measure in Arkansas expected little trouble winning its passage here.

Proponents of the measure worry that the Christian group's opposition will stir dissension among conservatives who must work together on numerous issues.

"The biggest problem is not the damage" to the tort reform proposal, said state Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, a sponsor of that measure. "The biggest hurdle is the damage to the pro-life cause."

The religious argument also could offer opponents in other states a new weapon for fighting such limits on legal damages. The legal restrictions have been making headway in recent years as the GOP has won control of roughly two-thirds of state legislatures.

Arkansas' measure is supported by an array of pro-business groups, including the state Chamber of Commerce, seeking to reinstate legal caps that have been chipped away over the years by court rulings.

The proposed amendment would cap damages for noneconomic losses, such as for pain and psychological distress, at $500,000 and punitive damages at $500,000 or three times the amount of compensatory damages awarded, whichever is higher. It also would cap attorneys' contingency fees at one-third of the net amount recovered.

The proposal doesn't cap economic damages, which go toward verifiable losses such as medical expenses, as well as past and future wages.

The conservative Family Council Action Committee argues that putting a cap on other damages devalues the lives of those with no incomes, such as the elderly and stay-at-home parents, who would receive little compensation for pain and suffering.

The Family Council, which championed Arkansas' ban on gay marriages, is organizing meetings with church leaders to call for the measure's rejection.

"The Bible is full of references to justice, and [the proposal] creates an environment where the powerful can tip the scales of justice against everybody else, but especially the poor," Jerry Cox, the Family Council's head, said at a recent breakfast meeting with pastors.

Pastors were handed informational booklets emblazoned with the words "Don't Put A Price Tag On Human Life." Fliers left on each table offered attendees inserts for their church bulletins.

Rose Mimms, the head of Arkansas Right to Life, also spoke against the measure, writing in an editorial on the conservative website that it "erodes our own pro-life efforts" in the state. The organization has not taken an official position on the proposed amendment.

Industry groups backing the amendment questioned whether the Family Council's actions were motivated by $150,000 in donations that the group received from a Little Rock law firm. Trial lawyers are the main opponents to the proposed amendment.

"They have sold their brand to trial lawyers to be able to promote this issue," said Carl Vogelpohl, the campaign manager for Arkansans for Jobs and Justice, which is backing the proposal.

Cox said the donation wasn't a factor and that his group announced its position before receiving the money.

Using church meetings to rally opposition especially angered the proposal's supporters.

"When you go to church and you hear somebody speak up against something, generally, you're thinking, 'Well, I'm getting a 100 percent clear picture,'" said state Rep. Marcus Richmond, R-Harvey, the House majority leader.

The nearly hourlong presentation to pastors by Cox and two other officials from his group alternated between a seminar and sermon, as they described the types of claims that could be constrained by the measure.

"Can I get an 'amen?'" Cox asked at one point.

"Amen," the audience repeated in approval.

Stephen Harrison, a pastor who attended the breakfast, said later that he wanted to research the proposal before taking a stand on it.

However, Harrison, who pastors the nondenominational Family Church in Pine Bluff, said, "I don't want to vote for something that will devalue human life or put a price tag on what a life is worth."

Vogelpohl said an equally compelling argument could be made to anti-abortion groups and other Christian conservatives that limiting damages could improve medical care in the state and help attract more doctors.

The spending on the effort to rally churches pales in comparison with the more than $3 million both sides of the issue have raised. The measure still faces a lawsuit from a former judge who argues that it should be disqualified from the ballot.

A Section on 08/19/2018

Print Headline: Family Council stirs opposition to tort proposal

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