MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – The Alabama Senate approved a bill Thursday that the sponsor said will keep education about Christmas and Hanukkah in public schools.
The bill by Republican Sen. Gerald Allen of Tuscaloosa upset the Senate’s black members when the Senate refused by a two-vote margin to amend Allen’s bill to add the African-American celebration of Kwanza.
“I pray for the day when we can have an Alabama Legislature sensitive to all the people of Alabama,” Senate Democratic Minority Leader Vivian Davis Figures of Mobile said.
Allen’s bill allows schools to educate students about the history of traditional winter celebrations and allows student and staff to exchange traditional greetings.
“Schools are often mistaken that any reference to Christianity and religious activities are prohibited. This will brings clarity,” Allen said.
The Senate passed his bill 22-7 and sent it to the House for consideration.
A large religious lobbying group supported the bill. Joe Godfrey, executive director of the Alabama Citizen Action Program, said the bill is in response to what he sees as a growing movement to stifle religious expression.
“We are happy there is a recognition that students have a right to express their religious views. We know they already have the right, but this reinforces that right,” he said.
Susan Watson, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, said teachers and students can already exchange holiday greetings and study traditional winter holidays, but school teachers and administrators can’t favor one holiday or religious belief over another.
“School administrators and the teachers they employ must be very cognizant that their curriculum and methodologies serve to educate – not promote their own religious beliefs,” she said.
Christmas and Hanukkah are the only celebrations mentioned in the bill. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Happy Holidays are the only greetings mentioned.
Democratic Sen. Quinton Ross of Montgomery tried to add several celebrations, including Kwanza, Winter Solstice and Hindu and Muslim observances, but the Senate blocked him on a voice vote. Then he tried to add only Kwanza and lost 10-12.
Some Democratic opponents of Allen’s bill said it is an election-year gimmick for Republicans and is certain to get challenged in court.
The ACLU’s Watson said Allen’s bill and a similar bill introduced in the House by Republican Rep. April Weaver of Pelham run “the risk of opening school districts up to costly and time-consuming litigation.”
In additional to traditional greetings, the bill allows public schools to display nativity scenes or menorahs, but any religious display must include either a symbol of another religion or a secular symbol, such as Santa Claus. Proponents said that is already done in some schools, but the bill will give comfort to school officials concerned about what might be permissible.
Eric Mackey, executive director of School Superintendents of Alabama, said his group isn’t taking a position on the bill, but school superintendents haven’t reported any problems to him. “I don’t think it is needed,” he said.
Mackey said he’s also concerned about unintended consequences. For instance, fourth graders across the state make decorations to go on the Christmas tree at the Governor’s Mansion in Montgomery. If the bill becomes law, Mackey said he wonders if students will have to make decorations for a second observance to comply with the law.
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