A Senate committee voted unanimously Wednesday to pass the amendment along to the full Senate, but only after rewriting it to say that schools and other public buildings can put up displays of historically significant documents, including documents with religious significance.
“This will still allow display of the Commandments,” said Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, who sponsored the amendment. “This is just to protect us in the courts.”
This is the third time Dial has proposed the measure. As originally worded, the amendment addressed only the display of the Commandments and banned the state from spending any public money to defend against lawsuits to take those displays down.
In a brief meeting late Wednesday afternoon, the Senate Committee on the Constitution, Campaign Finance, Ethics and Elections amended the bill to word it more broadly.
Committee Chairman Sen. Bryan Taylor, R- Prattville, said the broader wording was needed to keep the courts from striking the law down. He said the bill would allow the display of the Ten Commandments as well as documents such as the Declaration of Independence, without expressing a specifically religious purpose that could cause the courts to strike it down.
Display of the Commandments has been a recurring issue in Alabama politics since the late 1990s, when then-Circuit Judge Roy Moore engaged in a legal battle over the display of the Commandments in his courtroom. Later, as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Moore was removed from office for defying a court order to remove a Commandments statue he placed on court grounds. Moore was re-elected as chief justice last year.
In Moore’s battles, as in many other Ten Commandments cases, the court ruled that display of the Commandments violated the establishment clause in the First Amendment, which prohibits the state from making any law that establishes a religion.
Before the vote, Sen. Shadrack McGill, R-Scottsboro, a member of the Senate committee, asked whether the broader wording of the bill would “open the door to world religions” in public displays. Taylor said no.
“Documents that are not part of our Judeo-Christian, Western civilization foundations would not be included,” he said.
Taylor’s amendment passed unanimously, and the amendment itself passed unanimously shortly afterward.
Dial said the bill, as amended, no longer includes explicit references to the Ten Commandments.
No one at the meeting spoke against the measure. In a telephone conversation after the meeting, Charles Miller, executive director of the Secular Coalition of Alabama, said the Ten Commandments wording in the original bill would never have stood up in court.
Miller, who said his organization defends the civil rights of atheists, agnostics and other non-theists, was less critical of the bill as amended. Courts have upheld public display of religious documents before, he said, when they were part of broader historical displays.
“Of course, they’ll have to have equal access,” he said. “They’ll have to be open to the Code of Hammurabi and documents from other faith traditions.”
Doing that properly, without showing support for one religion over the other, would be difficult, he said.
“It’s like the school prayer thing,” he said. “If you pray one way, you’re stepping on someone’s toes. It’s better for the state to just stay out of this completely.”
Dial said he expected the bill to pass the Senate. It didn’t pass in earlier years, Dial said, because it didn’t get on the agenda soon enough.
“It would get on ten or fifteen days into the session, and there were too many bills ahead of it,” he said. The legislative session goes on for only 30 days.
Last year’s version of the bill was also altered in committee to include the broader wording similar to the “historically significant” wording.
Dial said Republican leaders had made the bill a priority this year.
If passed this year, the amendment would likely be on the ballot in 2014, when lawmakers are also up for re-election.
Dial said the amendment wouldn’t cost the state any legal fees, because public institutions wouldn’t be allowed to spend money defending lawsuits against display of the Commandments.
“We don’t have to worry about that,” he said. “There are organizations that would be willing to step in.”
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