May 2018 Church & State Magazine - May 2018

Alabama Voters To Decide Ten Commandments Displays In Public Schools

  Liz Hayes

Alabama voters in November will be asked to decide whether the state’s constitution should be amended to explicitly permit the display of the Ten Commandments in public schools and buildings.

Voters on Nov. 6 will see a ballot question that asks them whether they approve amending the constitution by “authorizing the display of the Ten Commandments on state property and property owned or administrated by a public school or public body; and prohibiting the expenditure of public funds in defense of the constitutionality of this amend­ment.”

The voter referendum was established by Senate Bill 181, which was approved by the state Senate in February and by the state House on March 22. The question did not need to go to the governor for approval to appear on the ballot.

The news website Alabama Political Reporter noted that bill sponsor Sen. Gerald Dial (R-Lineville) has proposed this amendment for several years. Speaking in February shortly after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Dial said the religious displays could prevent school shootings.

“I believe that if you had the Ten Commandments posted in a prominent place in school, it has the possibility to prohibit some student from taking action to kill other students,” Dial said. “If this bill stops one school shooting in Alabama, just one, then it’s worth the time and effort we’re putting into it.”

State Rep. Ed Henry (R-Hartselle), who proposed a different bill that would have allowed Ten Commandments displays in public schools, theorized that many of the state’s problems were due to a lack of religious faith and could be fixed by displaying the Decalogue, according to the news website AL.com.

“I think it can be argued that the root cause of most of the problems [referenced] … happen because … [people] left God,” Henry said in March. “They forgot who Christ is in their life.”

Opponents of SB 181, which pas­sed along near-partisan lines in both chambers, said the bill was designed to increase turnout among Alabama’s conservative and evangelical Christian voters for the 2018 midterm elections.

“We’ll have an opportunity to show the state of Alabama, the nation and the world that we do want to acknowledge the Christian God this nation was founded upon,” Dean Young, a chief strategist for former Alabama judge Roy Moore’s failed U.S. Senate campaign, said in an interview with Breitbart News. “We’ll find out if Alabama is really the Bible Belt, the belt buckle or not. I will push for this as hard as I can.”

Moore has regularly been referenced in news coverage of the Ten Commandments referendum because he cost Alabama voters more than a half-million dollars after erecting a Ten Commandments display in the Judicial Building in Montgomery when he was chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2001. After Americans United challenged the display, a federal court ordered Moore to remove the monument; he was removed from office when he refused to comply.

SB 181 tries to make the proposed school Ten Commandments displays pass constitutional muster by having them “intermingled with historical or educational items, or both, in a larger display within or on property owned or administrated [sic] by a public school or public body.” However, as AU Legislative Assistant Samantha Sokol explained on the “Wall of Separation” blog, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 ruled in the Stone v. Graham case that displays of the Ten Commandments in public schools were unconstitutional and served no secular purpose.

“Courts have also struck down displays of the Ten Commandments on public property with other surrounding historical items when it’s done with a religious purpose,” Sokol said, noting the faith-based intentions advocated by supporters of SB 181.

“If Alabama wants to display a document in public spaces that brings Americans of different faiths together and honors our shared value of religious freedom, we’ve got a better idea: the U.S. Constitution,” Sokol added.

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