Freedom of Religion? AL Lawmakers Want Daily Prayer Required in Schools

Alabama lawmakers are proposing a multitude of school prayer and religious expression bills this session. Legislators say the bills are an effort to push efforts to squash all vestiges of religion from the public square. Opponents called the bills election-year pandering and said the proposals are either unnecessary or unconstitutional.

"I think there is frustration on the constant restrictions that have been coming. I remember when I was in first and second grade you could have prayer in school. All of the sudden you couldn't do those things," said Joe Godfrey, executive director of the church-based Alabama Citizens Action Program.

Susan Watson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, sees it differently.

"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.

Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, has proposed to set aside up to 15 minutes at the start of each school day to study the procedures of Congress, including having teachers give a verbatim reading of a congressional opening prayer.

Hurst said he thought of the idea after thinking about how Congress and the Alabama Legislature begin their days with prayer, but schools can't.

"If you are reading the prayer verbatim that was entered into the Congressional record, then how can this be unconstitutional?" Hurst said.

Hurst said he thought the time could be educational and that teachers might pick prayers that relate to the day's lesson. He said that might include the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or the lean times of the Great Depression. He said students could be excused if they didn't want to hear the prayer part of the lesson.

"Nobody has to pray," Hurst said.

Watson called the bill a "cunning" attempt to get prayer back in school, but said it was also "clearly unconstitutional."

"It's prayer dressed up like a civics lesson," Watson said.

The Alabama House of Representatives on Thursday approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the display of the Ten Commandments in schools and other public buildings. The copy of the Ten Commandments would have to be mingled with other historic documents, according to the legislation.

"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, it just means that there cannot be a state sponsored religion and you can't force a religion on anyone," Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said.

"Now, will there be a challenge? Absolutely, there will be a challenge. Are there liberal judges out there who would love to say it's unconstitutional? Absolutely. But I believe it is the right thing to do," Hubbard said.

Rob Boston, director of communications for the Washington D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the state was inviting lawsuits if it approved either bill.

"This is a matter that the Supreme Court dealt with some years ago. The court made it clear that public schools can't display the Ten Commandments," Boston said

The Alabama Senate earlier this session approved a "Merry Christmas" bill that would write into state law that teachers could offer traditional holiday greetings and schools could have holiday symbols, such as a Christmas tree or a menorah. The displays would have to either show the symbols of more than one religion or include a mixture of religious and secular symbols.

Another bill would put in state law that the students have the right to initiate prayer in school and express their religious views in their writings and artwork for class. Sponsor Rep. Mack Butler, R-Rainbow City, said teachers are scared about what is legal and what's not. He said putting it in state law would give them some guidance.

Watson said both bills are unnecessary, and students already have a right to prayer guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

"Teachers and student can already say Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah," Watson said.

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