Commentary on Alabama Law and Society

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Location: Birmingham, Alabama

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Sound Bites over Sound Policies

Is how I am tempted to label the latest legislative session. (Get summaries here, here, and here).

Let us rewrite our constitution so that it takes up less than two full volumes of the Alabama Code and protects more than the white property owners who wrote it? No.

Publicly take our stand on God's side in the war on Christians/against terror by creating God Bless America license plates? Yes.

Take some time to make sure we are not executing innocent people? No.

Allow property owners to summarily execute trespassers? Yes.

Give voters clear information on who gets money from who? No.

Make sure legislators can spend our money with no oversight? Yes.

Give us an actual voice in state government through initiative and referendum? No.

Give us a voice in the presidential primary? Yes.

But anyway, one of the lesser discussed failures was the bible literacy bill (HB 58). It would have allowed local school boards to "offer students in public high school Grades 9 to 12 . . . the course 'The Bible and its Influence.'" The course would have used a textbook of the same name. The book is apparently a fairly even-handed attempt to explain how different groups read the Bible, and some of the ways the Bible has contributed to modern culture.

This law would have been great primarily for the resulting lawsuits. We could have seen the ACLU and the Christian Coalition join forces to prohibit the class.

If not the ACLU, someone out there would have heard the words 'Bible' and 'public school' and immediately have run to the courthouse crying 'wall of separation! wall of separation!' Meanwhile, the Christian Coalition and similar types would have been mad because the textbook teaches the Bible in an academic manner, rather than as the literal word of god. In other words, they would be mad because the book does not violate the first amendment. Hence, their claim would have to center on some procedural misstep. (See this for a preview of what they might have argued). Both suits probably would have failed. The book appears religiously neutral, and legislatures have almost unfettered discretion to set academic policy. It sure would have made for some great blogging, though.

The law was also a pretty good idea. In my opinion, one very bad consequence of the religious culture wars is that it is almost impossible to have an academic course on the subject. Someone is going to get mad, so no public school wants to touch the subject. The result is that most of us have very little knowledge of what anyone outside our own tradition believes. Some of us may think that does not matter, because everyone else is going to hell anyway. But even if that is true, ignorance makes for some unnecessary suffering in the meanwhile.