Education concerns trump school prayer in election of Alabama governor

Thursday, November 5, 1998

Voters in Alabama went to the polls this week and narrowly supported a state Religious Freedom Amendment while overwhelmingly banishing from office Fob James, an often- boisterous supporter of government-sponsored prayer.

Running for a second consecutive term as Alabama's governor, James, a Republican, made a big deal out of religion's place in the public schools and positioned himself as a staunch defender of conservative Christian values. He had the help of Christian Coalition ex-director Ralph Reed.

James derided a federal judge in Alabama for ordering public school teachers in the state to cease supporting an unconstitutional school-prayer law. He also claimed the First Amendment did not apply to Alabama, and that therefore the federal judge had no business issuing the order. Finally, James garnered national attention when he defended a state judge who displays a copy of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom and allows Christian prayer there.

He's now the ex-governor. James' challenger, Democrat Don Siegelman, did not align himself with the religious right and did not talk much about school prayer. In fact Siegelman raised the ire of Alabama's religious right by promising to start a state lottery and use its cash flow to help education. Siegelman received 58% of the vote to 42% for James on Tuesday.

Fob James...
Fob James

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said a religious-right agenda failed to produce significant victories nationally.

“The embrace of the religious right was a kiss of death for candidates in many competitive races,” Lynn said. He cited James as a prime example. “Fob is the personification of the Religious Right agenda. He made school prayer and the Ten Commandments the chief planks in his platform. Yet even conservative Alabama voters refused to say amen.”

Pamela Sumners, a Birmingham, Ala., attorney who has represented the state American Civil Liberties Union in its legal wrangle over state-sponsored school prayer, lauded James' defeat.

“I'm probably the happiest woman in Alabama, besides Mrs. Siegelman,” Sumners said. “Our state no longer has a lunatic-fringe governor. Fob James was the political climate for years. He went out of his way to whip up a religious-right frenzy. Last night, the state of Alabama buried another George Wallace for the second time in a 60-day period. I'm proud of my fellow Alabamians.”

Sumners said that exit polls in the state revealed that school prayer was not on voters' minds. “Only three percent of Alabama voters thought school-prayer was an important issue,” she said. “Siegelman really neutralized the school-prayer bill as an issue.”

Moreover, Sumners said, the vote in Alabama represented a backlash against the religious right. “I think the vote was a shove from a vast majority of far more normal people who are tired of witch hunts, bigotry and anti-gay rhetoric,” she said.

Molly Clatworthy, a spokeswoman for the Christian Coalition, disagreed that James' stance on religion spurred his defeat. She said a nonpartisan polling group, commissioned by the coalition, produced numbers that showed James' religious views did not hurt him.

“Only one percent voted against James for his stand on the Ten Commandments and only five percent for his support of religious liberty,” Clatworthy said. “Also 63 percent of voters said they agreed with conservative religious groups and only 13 percent said they would align themselves with liberal groups.”

Clatworthy said she did not know enough about Siegelman to know whether he would continue support for a state school-prayer amendment. She said she believed his victory had more to do with his call for a state lottery to pay for education.

Voters in Alabama did support an amendment to the state constitution that a national religious-liberty group has said grants greater protection of religious liberty.

The Religious Freedom Amendment was supported by 54% of the electorate. The amendment, which is similar to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, would bar the state from “burdening the freedom of religion unless the government demonstrates that is has a compelling reason to do so and that the interest is achieved by the least restrictive means.”

RFRA of 1993, however, was invalidated last year by the U.S. Supreme Court as an improper congressional action. Since its demise, the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion, a gathering of national religious-liberty and civil rights groups, has called on state legislatures to enact the legal standard. Alabama became the first state to amend its constitution to include the test, therefore saving it from state court scrutiny.

Sumners said she feared the amendment would weaken the separation of church and state.

“The way the amendment was drafted allows for even incidental burdens on religion to trump important state concerns,” she said. “The change effectively says the establishment clause does not exist.”

Steve McFarland, director of the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Justice, praised Alabama voters for altering their constitution.

“The passage of the amendment is some of the best news from election day,” McFarland said. “Alabama has embraced the highest legal protection for our first freedom. This is the right standard and by putting it in the constitution, it means religious freedom won't be at the mercy of a future Legislature.”