Bad news from Alabama: Gov. Robert Bentley (R) has signed a neo-voucher bill designed to divert tens of millions in public funds to religious and other private schools.

The so-called Alabama Accountability Act began as a relatively non-controversial measure that allowed local school districts to opt out of state regulations. But during a House-Senate conference committee dominated by Republicans, HB 84 was altered to set up a tax-credit scheme that lets students in “failing” public schools transfer to private schools.

The legislative shenanigans that led to this bill’s passage were outrageous – featuring duplicity, back-stabbing and closed-door intrigues. Montgomery Advertiser reporter Sebastian Kitchen said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) and other Republicans pretended to be working with Democrats and education groups on the legislation.

“Meanwhile,” Kitchen said, “Republicans were secretly working on a vastly different bill -- knowing their discussions about the actual legislation that people could read were a sham. At best, some key Republicans were intentionally misleading in their previous conversations. At worst, they lied.”

When the altered bill came before the state Senate, that body erupted into chaos. Senators yelled at each other and called names for over 20 minutes as Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey tried vainly to regain control.

A circuit court judge later barred the measure from going to governor’s office for his signature, finding the process a violation of the Open Meetings Act. The order, however, was predictably overturned by the Alabama Supreme Court, an all-Republican body led by notorious “Ten Commandments” Judge Roy Moore, a scofflaw who bases his opinions as much on his fundamentalist reading of the Bible as he does the Constitution. 

Gov. Bentley then quickly added his name to the measure.

Supporters of the measure say it will cost taxpayers from $60 to $70 million annually. Analysts at the Alabama Education Association (AEA) say it’s more likely to be $250 million. Some critics think it might run as high as $367 million.

Regardless of the amount, it’s too much. The Alabama Constitution is pretty darn clear on this topic. Article I, Sec. 3 bars the government to force anyone to pay taxes “for maintaining any minister or ministry,” and Article XIV, Sec. 263 states flatly, “No money raised for the support of the public schools shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian or denominational school.”

AEA representatives say a lawsuit is certain. I hope so.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. A mega-bucks combination of powerful sectarian and ideological interests is waging war on the public school system and the principle of church-state separation. They want to divert as much taxpayer funding as possible to religious and other private schools, starving public schools in the process.

Alabama is one battleground in that war. Other fronts include Tennessee, Texas, Indiana, Wisconsin, Maine, Mississippi, Alaska, New Jersey, Ohio, Hawaii, Louisiana and many other states.  

If you care about America’s public schools, if you care about church-state separation, get involved today.  Monitor developments in your state legislature, sign up for Americans United’s alerts and make a donation to the organizations that are on the frontlines.

PS: Tomorrow is the birthday of James Madison, the Father of the Constitution and a key architect of church-state separation. Honor “little Jemmy” by joining the fight to preserve religious liberty and public schools.