MONTGOMERY — Alabama voters in November will decide on statewide constitutional amendments providing for the public display of the Ten Commandments and declaring Alabama a “right to life” state.
If approved, at least one of those measures could lead to legal challenges.
Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, tried for more than a decade to get on the ballot a constitutional amendment allowing the Ten Commandments in public spaces. This year, it got through the Legislature. If Alabamians approve the referendum, Dial expects legal challenges.
“It might wind up being the case that goes all the way to the (U.S.) Supreme Court,” Dial said Thursday.
But he said a Supreme Court battle isn’t his objective.
“My goal is to get the Ten Commandments back in public buildings, especially in schools,” Dial said.
His legislation allowing the constitutional amendment says “… Property belonging to the state may be used to display the Ten Commandments and the right of a public school and public body to display the Ten Commandments on property owned or administrated by a public school or public body in this state is not restrained or abridged.”
Dial’s bill says the Ten Commandments “shall be displayed in a manner that complies with constitutional requirements, including, but not limited to, being intermingled with historical or educational items, or both, in a larger display within or on property owned or administrated by a public school or public body.”
“This is feel good legislation that merely sets up entities to be sued if they display the Ten Commandments,” Randall Marshall, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, said last week. ““The fact of the matter is, if the purpose of the display of the Ten Commandments is religious, it’s going to be unconstitutional.”
The bill says no public funds can be used to defend the constitutionality of the amendment.
Dial said private parties and individuals have offered to pay for legal fees in a court challenge.
“There are a number of groups willing to do that,” he said.
In 2003, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore was removed from the bench for defying a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument he’d placed in the state judicial building.
There is currently a legal battle in Arkansas over a Ten Commandments display outside that state’s Capitol. Those who want it removed say it’s an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by the government.
Arkansas’ monument is a replica of a display at the Texas Capitol that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005, the Associated Press reported. The court that year struck down Ten Commandments displays in two Kentucky courthouses.
‘Rights of unborn’
In 2017, Republican lawmakers approved putting on the ballot a constitutional amendment that declared it's the policy of Alabama “to recognize and support the sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children, including the right to life …”
It also says it’s the policy of the state “to ensure the protection of the rights of the unborn child in all manners and measures lawful and appropriate.”
It says nothing in the state constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion.
Rep. Matt Fridy, R-Montevallo, sponsored the legislation.
“The goal is that if Roe v. Wade is overturned, that there wouldn’t be anything in Alabama to take its place,” Fridy said. “The Alabama Constitution couldn’t be used as a tool to provide for the right to an abortion.”
Anti-abortion advocates are hopeful the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade, which made access to abortions a constitutional right in the first two trimesters of pregnancy.
There is opposition to Fridy’s proposal.
"This constitutional amendment paves the way to ban all abortion in the state of Alabama — even in cases where a woman was a victim of rape or incest, or if the woman's life is at risk,” Katie Glenn, Alabama director for Planned Parenthood Southeast, said last week. “With so many other problems facing the state of Alabama, this amendment is just the wrong priority. Our lawmakers should be focusing on improving education and health care in this state — not further restricting our rights.”
Fridy said his amendment is patterned after one approved in Tennessee in 2014.
He said it is not a “personhood” amendment other states have attempted.
In 2011, voters in Mississippi rejected an amendment that would have legally recognized a fetus as a person at conception. North Dakota and Colorado voters said "no" to personhood amendments in 2014.
Glenn said abortion must be safe and legal.
“We’re determined to make sure it stays so,” she said.
Franklin County tax
Since 2010, Franklin County voters have four times voted for a 1-cent sales tax for education and roads. The constitutional amendment on this year’s ballot makes two changes.
First, it’s a 30-year extension of the tax, not two years. Second, the 25 percent of the tax revenue dedicated to roads and bridges wouldn’t be tied to the Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program. Instead, county leaders could use the money on projects of their choice.
Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, sponsored the bill to change the tax. He said the money will be split equitably among county commission districts, and projects in each district will be prioritized.
“The people in the county will see the results,” Stutts said. “This is good local government.”
The legislation stipulates that the tax revenue can’t be spent on salaries, personnel costs, or the purchase or lease of new equipment.
Seventy-five percent of the tax goes to the Franklin and Russellville school systems. That doesn’t change under the new constitutional amendment. According to county officials, during the 2017 fiscal year, the one-cent sales tax generated a total of $2,411,481.96.