A Rough Year for Secular Alabamians: Taking a Look at Alabama's 2015 Legislative Session

By Amanda Scott, Co-Chair of Secular Coalition for Alabama

As the 2015 session of the Alabama state legislature comes to an end, let’s reflect on the legislation introduced undermining the separation of church and state, LGBT rights, reproductive rights, and the right to die.

Beginning in January, the first bill introduced in the Alabama House, House Bill 1, was sponsored by Rep. Mack Butler (R-Rainbow City). Known as the Student Religious Liberties Act, the bill “clarified” that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment protects the rights of students to pray and engage in religious activities in public schools. Rep. Butler’s bill was signed into law by Governor Robert Bentley on the National Day of Prayer this May.

This was a different bill than the one I wrote a letter to the editor against in the Mobile Press-Register last September. Sponsored by Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, and Rep. Steve McMillian, R-Bay Minette, the McMillian-Dial bill contained an explicit provision that authorized school personnel to participate in religious activities with students, which secular groups strongly objected to.

Rep. Butler introduced another bill, House Bill 592, which would have encouraged teachers to help students develop “critical thinking skills” to analyze and critique “the strength and weaknesses” of “all existing scientific theories.” The bill was the latest example of so-called “academic freedom” bills introduced in state legislatures to undermine the teaching of evolution in public schools. It failed to garner enough support and died in committee.

Another Republican from Rainbow City, Sen. Phil Williams, introduced Senate Bill 277, which would have allowed “the display of images associated with a religious holiday” such as a “Christmas image, nativity scene, or Christmas tree” on public property if the display “has a secular purpose and does not advance a particular religion.” Rep. Williams’ bill was in response to the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s (FFRF) letter to Rainbow City last December urging them to remove a nativity scene displayed in front of the Rainbow City Hall. FFRF argued that the nativity scene sent a message that the City endorses the religious beliefs embodied within the display.  

In February, Rep. Jim Hill (R-St. Clair County) introduced House Bill 56, known as the Freedom of Religion in Marriage Protection Act, which would have allowed state judges to refuse to solemnize marriages based on their religious objections. The bill passed in the House and was referred to the Senate. The American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, the Human Rights Campaign of Alabama, and other groups mobilized their members to defeat the legislation.

On the day of the public hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I was prepared to deliver testimony against the bill arguing that it would have negatively impacted people with no religious affiliation. For religiously unaffiliated people seeking a secular marriage, being married by a state judge is their only option. If the state judge refused to marry them based on a religious objection, then they would have no real options to marry in Alabama. This effectively would have relegated nonreligious Alabamians to second-class citizens.

Rep. Arnold Mooney (R-Birmingham) made efforts to codify Alabama’s public policy against assisted suicide into law. House Bill 496, or the Assisted Suicide Ban Act, would prohibit health care providers from assisting a person in ending their life through prescribing lethal medication or other means, and it would make such efforts a Class C felony punishable up to ten years in prison.

The House advanced a series of anti-abortion bills. House Bill 491, the Health Care Rights of Conscience Act, sponsored by Rep. Arnold Mooney, would have allowed health care professionals to refuse to perform abortions, sterilization, human cloning and human embryonic stem cell research if doing so violated their conscience on religious or ethical grounds.

House Bill 405, The Fetal Heartbeat Act, sponsored by Rep. Terri Collins (R-Decatur) would prohibit a physician from performing an abortion after a heartbeat has been detected in the fetus. Similar legislation was held unconstitutional in North Dakota because it bans abortions before most women find out they are pregnant.

House Bill 527, the Abortion Clinic Closure Act, sponsored by Rep. Ed Henry (R-Hartselle) would prohibit the Alabama Department of Public Health from issuing or renewing licenses to abortion clinics located within 2,000 feet of schools. It would effectively shut down three out of four of Alabama’s abortion clinics, with the exception of Mobile.

Planned Parenthood Southeast Advocates and coalition members, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, Alabama Reproductive Rights Advocates, and the Birmingham Chapter of the National Organization for Women, mobilized their supporters through a Rally for Women’s Lives and a Women in the Halls Lobby Day to defeat the legislation.

But not all of our work in the Alabama state legislature this session was defeating regressive legislation. We also supported the passage of progressive legislation. Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, sponsored a LGBT nondiscrimination bill. House Bill 615 would have prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in employment, housing, public accommodations, credit transactions, and the right to vote.

A similar bill limited to state employees was also sponsored by Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison. House Bill 657 would have prohibited discrimination against state employees on the basis of immutable characteristics or traits unrelated to a person’s job performance. “Immutable characteristics or traits” likely would have included sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

Unfortunately, neither of these positive bills advanced in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and we are back to where we started in Alabama with no anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people in state or local law.  

 

 

 

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