Proposed Amendments Reignite Culture Wars in Alabama

(CN) – State Senator Gerald Dial spent the last 14 years advocating for an amendment to the Alabama Constitution that would authorize schools and local governments to display copies of the Ten Commandments on state-owned property.

Now, just a week after Dial serves his last day as a legislator and closes his office door in Montgomery for the last time, voters will decide on Election Day whether to approve Dial’s amendment.

The amendment is not designed to create a legal challenge, Dial said.

“Hopefully it doesn’t go there,” the retiring lawmaker told Courthouse News. “It’s unfortunate that we live in a time where you even have to put this on the ballot.”

It is the first of two proposed amendments on the Alabama ballot this year that revive longstanding cultural and political flashpoints. The second proposed amendment targets abortion by affirming “that it is the public policy of this state to recognize and support the sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children.”

If passed, both constitutional amendments could lead to challenges in a federal judiciary altered by the Trump administration.

Dial began introducing the legislation around the time former judge and failed U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore was removed from the Alabama Supreme Court in 2003 for installing a 2.6-ton Ten Commandments monument in the Alabama Justice Building, garnering national attention along the way.

But Dial told Courthouse News he pushed for the change because he heard his constituents concerned about prayers left unsaid at football games and acknowledgement of the Judeo-Christian God removed from the public square.

He said the measure would protect school districts, for example, from costly lawsuits.

If the amendment passes, Dial said officials who post the Ten Commandments can deflect legal challenges by saying, “Hey, dismiss the suit against me; I’m only following the constitution of the state of Alabama. The voters expressed their opinion that allows it to be placed in my school building and I’m doing that. And I made a choice to do that under the constitution and if you don’t like it, you have to sue us on our constitution.”

The proposed amendment specifies a defense of the measure would use no public dollars.

That’s where groups such as The Foundation for Moral Law – the nonprofit run by Moore and his wife Kayla – would come in.

“I’ve said on occasion that we would certainly defend it if called upon,” Moore said in a phone call with Courthouse News, “if the state wanted us to.”

Former U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore talks to the media as he prepares to vote on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017, in Gallant, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Moore, who lost a race for a U.S. Senate seat in a special election last year, was accused by several women of sexual misconduct when he was in his 30s and they were in their teens.

Moore continues to deny the allegations. He pointed out he has filed three defamation lawsuits surrounding the allegations and is considering a fourth.

The Foundation of Moral Law, Moore said, was not focused on the Ten Commandments amendment because its focus is on legal issues, although he has mentioned it in his newsletter. Instead, the organization’s recent statements show it is tackling the issue of prayer before athletic events.

Still, Moore believes the support for the display of the Ten Commandments is as high today as when he fought to keep a monument to them in the Alabama Justice Building. That monument now sits in a church in Gadsden, a city about 50 miles from Birmingham.

“I don’t think the support has waned at all,” he said. “I think it’s recognition that your definitions of right and wrong, moral concepts, are just as important today as they were back then, as they were in the days of [George] Washington, when he talked about it.”

Meanwhile, Phil Showers, a board member of the North Alabama Freethought Association, called the measure grandstanding “equivalent to [George] Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door.”

“Too many Alabamians eat this stuff up,” he wrote in an email. “It’s what led us to vote citizen Moore onto the bench despite his clear moral shortcomings. For some reason, some Alabamians take their team affiliation way too seriously.”

When it comes to the Ten Commandment amendment, Randall Marshall with the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama said it was so poorly written that it was nearly useless – and will get a school district sued.

Marshall added such amendments are a way for the Legislature to give the appearance that it is doing something. Alabama ranks last or near last when it comes to infrastructure, health care and the like, Marshall said in a phone call.

“When the Legislature can’t deal with those problems, and come up with solutions that will help the population, it turns to these kind of red-meat issues that they can go back and tout to their constituents,” he said.

But for many Alabamians, the other proposed amendment presents the bigger issue: abortion.

Parker Snider, director of policy analysis for the conservative Alabama Policy Institute, said in a phone interview that the abortion measure is the only amendment proposal that the organization has officially endorsed.

“It’s a good opportunity for us to show how alive this movement is,” he said, noting Alabama has historically supported anti-abortion policies.

While the nation’s highest court has determined the U.S. Constitution legalizes abortion, Snider said the amendment would be there to prevent the Alabama Supreme Court from finding a similar right in its constitution.

It’s an effort to head off what happened in Tennessee a few years ago, when the high court in the Volunteer State cited its own constitution to find a right to abortion there.

Snider said the anti-abortion measure would not create a drastic abortion law if the U.S. Supreme Court ever overturned abortion rights because state lawmakers would still need to set policy and craft a bill.

Recently, Alabama passed a law that banned the use of dilatation and evacuation abortions – one of the most common abortion procedures – but it was challenged and struck down by the 11th Circuit, albeit begrudgingly.

“The circuits, they’re changing to benefit the pro-life movement,” Snider said. “So I think, especially with Trump’s appointing all these judges, hopefully most of them are pro-life judges… I think the change in the judicial system offers new opportunities.”

Groups like Planned Parenthood have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight the proposed amendment.

Indeed, after the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the group announced a plan to spend millions of dollars during the midterm elections.

Katie Glenn, Alabama state director for Planned Parenthood Southeast, contends that the goal of the amendment is to create a constitutional directive for rolling back abortion in all instances, including rape, incest and the life of the mother.

“If they had wanted to put those exceptions in this legislation, they would have and they chose not to,” Glenn told Courthouse News. “And the idea they would then go back and create them is just unthinkable.”

Planned Parenthood Southeast and several other organizations, including the ACLU of Alabama, created a coalition to discourage voters from approving the amendment.

They’ve run almost a traditional campaign, complete with door-knocking and phone calling. Part of the message is an appeal to moderates, who they hope will see the legislation as going too far, according to Glenn.

A similar ballot measure that did not go as far as Alabama’s proposed amendment was put to voters in Mississippi in 2011, Glenn said, and it was defeated.

While the coalition was working months before Kavanaugh was confirmed, his addition to the Supreme Court “put the stakes in even starker terms for Alabamians,” Glenn said.

“No longer is it some nebulous future that might exist, or might come to fruition,” she said. “It is a real potential that Roe v. Wade is in real danger.”

%d bloggers like this: