MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- By way of a voice vote, the House Education Policy Committee passed a bill that would require teachers to recite Christian prayers in public schools every day, even though the majority of members did not vote for it.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, would require teachers to spend no more than 15 minutes in the first class of each day to read, verbatim, opening prayers said before a meeting of the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate.
Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin, R-Indian Springs, chairwoman of the committee, said she heard more votes in favor of the bill.
"It's what I heard as chairman," she said.
Reps. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, Elaine Beech, D-Chatom, and Phil Williams, R-Huntsville, all voted against the bill. Reps. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, Mac Buttram, R-Cullman, and Kerry Rich, R-Albertville, did not vote at all.
The only two to vote in favor of the bill were McClurkin and Rep. Lesley Vance, R-Phenix City.
House Clerk Jeff Woodard said the chairman of each committee has the discretion to decide the outcome of a voice vote. Committee members can request roll call votes if there's a dispute, but none of the Education Policy committee members did.
Woodard said the majority of bills coming out of committees are passed by voice vote.
The committee also passed a religious expression bill, sponsored by Rep. Mack Butler, R-Rainbow City, that would allow students to initiate prayer in school and express their religious views in their schoolwork. The bill would also require schools to adopt a policy to reinforce those rights.
Butler, who served on a school board for 10 years, said the purpose of the bill is to communicate to school administrators and teachers what's legal. He said he knows teachers who are scared to death because they don't know where to draw the line.
"Every bit of this bill is already legal," Butler said. "It's just that no one knows it's legal."
Beech said she didn't understand why a bill legalizing actions that are already legal under the U.S. Constitution was needed.
State education officials at the public hearings on the bill last week said the bill isn't needed because students already have those rights and that developing individual policies might open schools to lawsuits if they don't get the wording correct.
Susan Watson, executive director of the Alabama Civil Liberties Union Alabama, said at last week's public hearing that the Congressional prayer bill is unconstitutional and will put school boards at risk of lawsuits.