Originally created 03/17/04

Religious bills advance amid partisan sniping



ATLANTA - A committee in the Democrat-controlled Georgia House approved a spate of bills Tuesday advancing conservative religious measures - but it wasn't pretty.

Lawmakers sniped at one another for nearly an hour and a half about two religious topics, allowing state tax dollars to go to religious charities and authorizing local governments to display the Ten Commandments.

The Ten Commandments debate got the most out of hand in the Rules Committee, which decides which bills will advance to the full House for a vote.

At one point, in the middle of an argument about whether Jews would be slighted and whether the religions of ancient Africans were being ignored, Rules Chairman Calvin Smyre of Columbus even threatened to dissolve the meeting because of relentless bickering.

After the meeting, where lawmakers approved almost all the bills and decided to sift through them later, longtime Democratic Rep. Larry Walker shook his head over the tone of the debate.

"Good Lord, have mercy," he said, and walked out.

The House is likely to vote on the religious charities measure first, possibly today. It's a constitutional amendment to remove barriers to the state giving tax money to religions, something the state already does. Democrats and Republicans have rival versions of the plan.

The Democratic plan was chosen by the Rules Committee, even though supporters agreed it has glaring typographical errors and the amendment is protected from any change. Democrats wanted extra language to make sure the change wouldn't allow private school vouchers, and also wanted to make sure the state wouldn't be forced to give money to all religious charities.

"If we gave money to one church group, we might have to give the same amount to the church of the devil next door," said Democratic Leader Jimmy Skipper.

Then lawmakers moved to the Ten Commandments bills, all of which would allow or encourage local governments to display the religious rules some consider the foundation of American government.

But the debate quickly soured. Rep. Bob Holmes, of Atlanta, who is black, asked why there was no mention of the religious documents of Africans brought to this country, people who have been here for centuries and are an important part of American history.

"There are no African documents here," Mr. Holmes said.

To which Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland said, "You have documents?"

"Yes! We have documents!" Mr. Holmes nearly shouted.

There also was a fight about Jews.

Democratic Rep. Tom Bordeaux, of Savannah, said a list of historical documents to be included in the Ten Commandments displays didn't account for the important contributions of Jews in America.

"Where are the Jews?" Mr. Bordeaux asked.

"Moses was a Jew, if I remember correctly," Mr. Westmoreland said.