Originally created 02/11/06

Bills on religion garner support

ATLANTA - An election-year flurry of religion-based proposals is cruising through Georgia's Legislature this season - even as critics say they may land the state in court for tinkering with the line between church and state.

A push to teach the Bible in public schools, a renewed take on displaying the Ten Commandments at courthouses and even a measure ensuring government employees and students can say "Merry Christmas" without repercussions have won support from members of both parties.

All three measures passed at least one chamber of the Legislature last week by overwhelming votes.

National civil rights groups, though, say they've successfully fought similar measures in other states and wouldn't hesitate to sue the state of Georgia as well, particularly over the Bible class and Ten Commandment efforts.

"In both of these cases, I think the Legislature is wading into Constitutional quicksand," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, the director of the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

With 2006 elections looming, members of both parties have an incentive to go on the record with pro-religion ideas, said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor.

"The motivation the Republicans have is that this plays very well with their strongest supporters," Mr. Bullock said, citing the 2004 election, when political analysts believe a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage attracted more GOP-leaning religious conservatives to the polls.

In many moderate-to-conservative Georgia districts - and even some urban areas where black churches play a major role - Democrats may have similar motivations.

"My guess is they were trying to figure out a way to get on this bandwagon," Mr. Bullock said. "They certainly don't want to have any voters seeing them as anti-Bible or anti-religion."

In the Senate, minority Democrats surprised many last month by first proposing the legislation to teach the Bible as an elective, high school class in Georgia's public schools. It makes clear that the course would involve "nonsectarian, nonreligious academic study."

The plan got the early support of the Rev. Willis H. Moore, who regularly lobbies the Legislature on behalf of the Georgia Council on Moral and Civic Concerns.

"Being a Christian organization, we certainly think it's helpful for people to know about the Bible," the Rev. Willis said. "Our language has so much biblical imagery in it; we felt like, if people knew what this imagery means, it would give them a richer understanding."

Republicans substituted their own version, which specifies that the Bible itself would be the course textbook.

"If you're going to teach Macbeth, you use Macbeth," said Senate Republican Leader Tommie Williams, of Lyons, the plan's sponsor. "It's not an interpretation of the subject, it's the subject itself."

Democrats, however, said the changes threaten to derail the plan, which passed the chamber on a 49-1 vote.

"I hope our colleagues don't get us into a bunch of lawsuits," said Sen. Doug Stoner, D-Smyrna, one of the plan's original sponsors. "I would hate it if, due to partisanship, they end up poisoning the well on this issue."

Mr. Williams said his version, which is now up for consideration in the House, has the same Constitutional protections as the Democratic bill.

In the House, a bill that would allow courthouses to display the Ten Commandments zoomed through on a 140-26 vote.

The push for that measure comes after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that a courthouse display in Kentucky was unconstitutional and a federal judge ordered that a Ten Commandments plaque in Barrow County be taken down.

Lawmakers hope a Supreme Court with two new justices - Bush appointees John Roberts and Samuel Alito - would rule differently on a new law. But the Rev. Lynn, a minister in the United Church of Christ, said courts all across the nation have repeatedly shot down similar efforts.

The "Merry Christmas" bill, which passed the House 136-25, might have a different set of problems. No one is publicly threatening to sue over the measure - prompted by a controversy fueled by conservative talk-show hosts over the holidays - but critics warn the bill's language could also protect other expressions of free speech, including racial slurs, at schools and other government buildings.

What's The Reason?

This is an election year for the General Assembly, and pro-religion ideas appeal to both Republicans' and Democrats' supporters, according to Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor.


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