The Alabama House of Representatives is issuing bills of biblical proportions—sparking national controversy over legislation in the second-most religious state.
A week after lawmakers approved a proposed constitutional amendment to allow the Ten Commandments to be displayed in public buildings—so long as they share space with other historic documents—a measure requiring 15 minutes of teacher-led prayer in school was passed.
Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, sponsored the bill to require teachers to recite—verbatim, at the start of classes each day—the opening prayers said before U.S. House or Senate meetings.
“If you are reading the prayer verbatim that was entered into the Congressional record, then how can this be unconstitutional?” Hurst said.
Susan Watson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, finds the bill gratuitous because students already have a right to prayer and religious expression under the state constitution. She called Hurst’s bill a “cunning” attempt to get prayer back in school.
“I think it’s an election year, and legislators are doing everything they can to speak to their base. I think they are trying to garner votes,” Watson said.
Hurst said teachers can relate prayers to the day’s lesson, perhaps by including historical references, such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or the Great Depression. Students may be excused during the actual prayer portion if they do not wish to participate; the bill is unclear, however, about an alternative to the 15 minutes of prayer.
“It’s prayer dressed up like a civics lesson,” Watson said.
Adding to the religious momentum lawmakers in Alabama have built in recent weeks, the proposal for prayer in public schools passed with just two voice votes. Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin, R–Indian Springs, chairwoman of the House of Education Policy Committee, and one other Republican were the only two to vote in favor. Alabama's governor has voiced support for the bill.
Alabama has a record of approving bills that specifically allow religious expression: One allowing “Merry Christmas” greetings and other holiday cards with holy symbols in class was passed two weeks ago; another allows students to draw on religious influences for their schoolwork.
Rep. Mack Butler, R–Rainbow City, who sponsored the bill permitting students to express religious views in in-class art and writing, told the Advertiser that teachers didn’t know where to draw the line between a student’s religious liberties and their obligations in incorporating them in the class curriculum.
“Sometimes we forget that separation of church and state was not to make sure we don’t have any references, because the Founding Fathers clearly did that,” Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said. “It just means that there cannot be a state-sponsored religion, and you can’t force a religion on anyone.”