Fearing an attack on traditional values, four bills that challenge the separation of church and state are up for debate in the Alabama legislature, including one that would require teachers to read Christian prayers in public schools.
Three of the four bills concern religion in schools. One would formally allow teachers to celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah in the schools, while the another guarantees religious freedom to students. The fourth bill aims to pass a constitutional amendment to permit the display the 10 Commandments in public areas.
According to the Associated Press, Christmas and Hanukkah are specified in the bill that allows teachers to show images of “traditional winter celebrations.” One Democrat, Sen. Quinton Ross of Montgomery, tried to add Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, and other holidays, but was blocked by the state Senate.
Alabama Citizen Action Program, a religious lobbying group, supported the "winter celebrations bill" and the "religious freedom bill" to combat what it sees as increasing oppression of religious expression.
“We are happy there is a recognition that students have a right to express their religious views. We know they already have the right, but this reinforces that right,” said executive director Joe Godfrey.
The religious expression bill would allow students to express their religious beliefs in school, as well as to initiate prayer, according to the Montgomery Advertiser. If passed, the bill would require schools to form a policy to support those rights.
“This is truly a free speech bill,” said Rep. Mack Butler (R-Rainbow City), the bill’s sponsor. “This will get school boards to reinforce constitutional rights students already have.”
While supporters of the bills say they are trying to clarify what’s legal and what’s not so schools can avoid litigation with organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU sees the bills as unnecessary and preemptive.
Susan Watson, executive director of ACLU Alabama, said the religious expression and the winter celebrations bills are “solutions in search of a problem.” Students can already express their religious views and say “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Hanukkah” at school.
But she also says the bill veers into the dangerous territory of actually teaching a certain set of religious beliefs in schools.
“You can dress it up like a civics lesson, but it’s going to be unconstitutional,” Watson said.
The 10 Commandments bill, which would allow the biblical tenets to be displayed in any public building, including schools, passed in the House Judiciary Committee without opposition.