School prayer bills multiply in Alabama legislature

Thursday, March 19, 1998

Alabama legislators have passed yet another school-prayer bill.

It is at least the fifth bill voted on this legislative session that mandates time in the school day for quiet reflection or prayer. School prayer bills are multiplying as quickly as rabbits in a state where 96 percent of the citizens identify themselves as Christian and the governor's wife travels to evangelical crusades on a state jet.

The Senate voted 23-0 March 17 for a bill by Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, which would require all public schools to provide a brief period of quiet reflection or voluntary prayer at the start of each school day.

The bill now goes to the House, where another Senate prayer bill is pending.

Introduced by Sen. John Amari, R-Birmingham, that bill would require public school teachers to “conduct a brief period of quiet reflection for not more than 60 seconds with the participation of every pupil in the classroom.” It was approved by the Senate in late January and is pending in the House Committee on State Administration.

Also in the Senate is an amendment to the state constitution proposed by Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham. This measure would require all public school students to be taught one or more of the following: the formal procedures followed by the U.S. Congress, including a reading and discussion of one of the opening prayers given by the House chaplain; the relationship of a belief in God to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Declaration of Independence, the National Anthem, the nation's currency; the oath office required by the state constitution and the practice of taking an oath of office; Alabama legislative procedure; and the relationship of the Ten Commandments to civil and criminal law.

Smitherman's amendment remains stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Alabama's House has also produced several school prayer bills.

The bill introduced by Rep. John Page, D-Gadsden, was approved by the House last month and is set for a full Senate vote. Page's bill requires public schools “to provide a brief period of quiet reflection after the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at the opening of school every day in each public school classroom.”

The Senate also is ready to vote on a House bill–quite similar to proposals by Bedford and Amari–introduced by Rep. Perry Hooper, R-Montgomery, which requires public school teachers to “conduct a brief period of quiet reflection for not more than 60 seconds with the participation of every pupil in the classroom.”

Alabama has yet to enact a school prayer bill that is constitutional. In 1978, the Supreme Court invalidated a bill providing a “period of silence not to exceed one minute in duration, that should be observed for meditation.” The high court in Wallace v. Jaffree, ruled the law unconstitutional. Six of the justices found that the legislative history of the Alabama statute made it clear that the law was passed only for a religious purpose and that this improper motivation required the Court to invalidate the law.

Last year U.S. District Court Judge Ira DeMent found the state's 1993 school prayer law violated the separation of church and state. Subsequently, DeMent issued an order for public school teachers in DeKalb County to cease permitting and sponsoring all manner of religious activity.

DeMent's order prompted Gov. Fob James to declare that the First Amendment is not applicable to the states and moved proponents of mandatory school prayer to claim that religion in the public square had been severely undermined.

Pamela Sumners, a Birmingham attorney who successfully challenged the state's 1993 law for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that legislators “need to quit using the words 'voluntary prayer' or go back and read Wallace v. Jaffree, the Supreme Court case striking down the first Alabama prayer law.”

Sumners suggested that Alabama lawmakers are simply trying to defy DeMent's order. “If the legislators are truly intent on encouraging prayer in public schools, then they should expect to see me in court again,” she said.

Bedford, author of the newest Senate school prayer bill, said religious freedoms need to be guaranteed by the state.

“I believe in the separation of church and state, but I also believe that representing our own religious freedoms is important,” Bedford said. “My bill will help provide safer and better schools for our children.”

Bedford said that he supports Amari's bill, but believes his own version “provides more religious freedom, because it specifically mentions voluntary private prayer.”

Amari, however, said his bill–which does not include references to prayer–stands a better chance of passing federal court scrutiny.