By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—From school boards around the state to Governor Robert Bentley, concerns over the School Accountability Act of 2013 have continued to surface.
On Sunday, the president and editor of Alabama biggest news organization spoke out with his concerns. No, it was not the editor of a corporate-owned newspaper, but the The Alabama Baptist, the state’s largest news publication.
In an editorial in the Montgomery Advertiser, Dr. Bobby S. (Bob) Terry president and editor of The Alabama Baptist laments the fact that no individual or news organization has “called attention to the fact that the bill violates the religious liberty of every Alabamian as set forth in the 1901 Alabama Constitution.”
Dr. Terry, then lays out his case as to how the Accountability Act violates the state’s constitution.
Terry writes, “ Article I, Section 3 of the Alabama Constitution is titled Religious Liberty and says, in part, ‘No one shall be compelled by law to attend any place of worship; nor to pay any tithes, taxes or other rate for building or repairing any place of worship, or for maintaining any minister or ministry.’”
This section is known as a Compelled Support Clause, and is a foundational portion of the 1901 Constitution.
According to Terry, “The words are clear — no taxes for maintaining a church-related ministry. Yet that is exactly what tax credits are.”
Terry puts forward the idea that a “violation of religious liberty…occurs when public tax dollars are channeled into church-related causes.”
However, in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, the U.S. Supreme Court “paved the way for a new avenue of school choice, refusing to strike down an Arizona tax-credit program that allows Arizonans to direct a portion of their state income tax payments to organizations that support private schools, including religiously affiliated schools,” according to an abstract by Bruce Van Baren, Loyola University Chicago School of Law.
According to Van Baren, “a sharply divided Court held that the respondents, Arizona taxpayers, did not have legal standing to challenge the program’s constitutionality under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”
As Terry points out, the court only ruled that the citizens of Arizona, “did not have legal standing.”
Terry says this was a ruling in “A technical point about legal methodology [that] prevents an examination about the legal merits of the case.”
However, there still remains a potential problem in Section 263 of the Alabama Constitution which states, “School funds not to be used for support of sectarian or denominational schools. No money raised for the support of the public schools shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian or denominational school.”
Also known as the Blaine Amendment, Section 263 has caused some legal minds to question how the Alabama Supreme Court might react to this constitutional provision. This question especially becomes potent given the very strict constructionist views of Chief Justice Roy Moore. Moore, is not seen as a justice who tows party-lines, but as a judicial purist. Many have assumed that because the Alabama court is comprised of republicans that any legislation passed by the republican majority would be upheld without a fair judicial review. While this maybe true of some, no one could accurately accuse Justice Moore of being a partisan pushover.
Recently, the Alabama Policy Institute has issued a paper expressing the need to overturn Section 263 or the Blaine Amendment portion of the State Constitution.
The President of API, Gary Palmer, and his organization have deep ties to the group ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) which wrote the blueprint for the Alabama School Accountability Act.
Addressing the problems that might arise with school-choice laws in Alabama ALEC, wrote, “Tax credit programs and vouchers are both school choice options for Alabama. Although the Alabama Constitution contains both a Compelled Support Clause and Blaine Amendment language, the Alabama courts are unlikely to interpret these clauses expansively to prohibit school choice.”
Yet, the Compelled Support Clause and Blaine Amendment were originally intended to make sure there was a separation between church schools and state tax dollars.
ALEC then offers its recommendation to the state’s legislature, “To avoid potential problems with the second of Alabama’s Blaine Amendments (Article XIV, Section 263), voucher program funding should explicitly come from sources other than the state’s public school fund.”
In this mode, API is encouraging lawmakers to repeal the part of the Alabama Constitution that does not allow spending of public education funds on religious schools.
API writes, “During the current effort to reform and modernize Alabama’s Constitution, state lawmakers should give the citizens of Alabama an opportunity to repeal this egregious assault on religion. Allowing state programs to cooperate with parochial and other private schools… can illuminate a whole world of educational options for Alabama’s children.”
API says it wants to, “illuminate a whole world of educational options for Alabama’s children.”
Dr. Terry seems to argue that such illumination violates the state’s constitution saying, “Tax credits to parochial schools are nothing more than what one writer called a ‘silly distinction’ to allow government to use its taxing power to support religious ministries.”
Terry further states, “If the bill stands, Alabama will join a growing list of states with a controversial school-funding program that funnels public money to private and religious institutions in the form of tax credits. That this could happen in Alabama where we vigorously resist efforts by other government entities to limit religious freedom is the greatest of ironies.”
The libertarian-leaning Cato Institute has said of school choice, “To realize the positive effects of a competitive education market, school choice programs must ensure autonomy and independence for private schools and flexibility for public schools.”
One could question how much “autonomy and independence” a faith-based school could exercise under the tax credit system of the Accountability Act.
Terry, concludes his editorial boldly stating, “That this could happen in a state where Baptists, the champions of religious liberty, are the predominant religious group is equally astonishing. It illustrates the difference between valuing religious liberty in theory and actually protecting that liberty in practice.”
Dr. Terry is the president and editor of The Alabama Baptist. Their stated goal is to “help empower Baptists of Alabama and others to live out the biblical concepts of Christian discipleship in their personal lives, their professional lives and their lives within the community of faith.”
Trump Truck and boat parades this weekend
As Election Day draws near, Alabama Republicans are excited about promoting the re-election of Donald J. Trump as President and the election of Tommy Tuberville for U.S. Senate. This weekend two pro-President Trump events are happening in the state. There will be a truck parade from Ashland to Phenix City on Saturday sponsored by the Clay County Republican Party, while there will also be a boat parade on Wilson Lake in the Shoals sponsored by the Colbert County Republican Party on Sunday.
The pickup trucks will assemble at the Ashland Industrial Park in Clay County, 8240 Hwy 9, Ashland. There is a pre-departure rally at 10:00 a.m. central standard time. The trucks will depart at 11:00 a.m. and then proceed on a parade route that will take them into the bitterly contested swing state of Georgia. The Trump Pickup Parade will wind through east Alabama and West Georgia traveling through LaGrange and Columbus before concluding near the Alabama/Georgia line in Phenix City, 332 Woodland Drive, Phenix City at approximately 2:00 p.m. central time. Speakers will begin at 3:00. Trump flags will be on sale at the event.
The Phenix Motorsports Park will be hosting what sponsor hope could possibly the world’s largest Pickup Tuck parade in U.S. history that is routing over 50 mile through Georgia in effort to “pickup” President Trump’s numbers in GA.
A number dignitaries have been invited to address the Phenix City rally, including Coach Tuberville. Former State Sen. Shadrack McGill, Trump Victory Finance Committee member former State Rep. Perry O. Hooper Jr., and Paul Wellborn, the President and CEO of the largest Family owned Kitchen Cabinet manufacture in the USA are among the featured speakers who have committed to speak at the event.
Entertainment will be provided by: Charity Bowden, an up and coming country music singer who was the runner up on “The Voice”. Charity will sing ‘I am Proud to be an American’ as well as songs from her Voice performances. The McGill Girls will also perform. The three beautiful and talented sisters will be singing patriotic songs in three part harmony. Geoff Carlisle, a professional DJ will be keeping the crowd pumped with music and entertainment.
Following the speakers and the entertainment there will Trump truck-vs- Joe Bidden truck races down the drag strip for the finale.
The Northwest Alabama boat parade will be on Sunday. The boats will gather at 2:00 p.m. near Turtle Point and then the flotilla will parade around the open waters of Wilson Lake til 3_00 p.m.. There will be a contest for best decorated Trump boats.
Trump supporters have held a number of large boat parades across the state to show their support for the re-election of Pres. Trump.
Boat parade sponsors say that this parade will be: pro-American, pro-law enforcement, pro-military.
COVID-19 hospitalizations, new cases continue to rise
The number of rising hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Alabama is a concerning sign of a possible coming surge of the disease, state health experts said Friday. Alabama hospitals were caring for 888 coronavirus patients Friday, the highest number since Sept 9.
UAB Hospital was caring for around 80 COVID-19 inpatients Friday afternoon, said Dr. Rachael Lee, an infectious disease specialist at UAB, speaking to reporters Friday. UAB Hospital hasn’t had that many coronavirus inpatients since Aug. 18, when the disease was surging statewide.
“We have been dealing with this since March, and I think it’s easy for us to drop our guard,” Lee said.
Alabama added 3,852 new coronavirus cases on Friday, but 1,287 of them were older positive antigen tests, conducted in June through October and submitted to ADPH by a facility in Mobile, according to the department. Still, Alabama’s daily case count has been increasing, concerning health officials already worried that as the weather turns colder and the flu season ramps up, Alabama could see a surge like the state had in July.
Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily cases was 1,247 on Friday, the highest it’s been since Sept 4. Over the last 14 days, Alabama has added 17,451 new COVID-19 cases.
Friday’s inclusion of those older positive test results throws off the day’s percent positivity, by Thursday the state’s percent of tests that were positive was nearly 16 percent. Public health officials say it should be at or below five percent or cases are going undetected.
The state added 16 COVID-19 deaths on Friday, bringing to total confirmed deaths statewide to 2,859. Over the last two weeks, 206 deaths were reported in the state. Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily deaths on Friday was 15.
Alabama state health officer Dr. Scott Harris told APR by phone Friday called the rising new cases and hospitalizations “worrisome.”
Harris noted the data dump of older confirmed cases in Friday’s data, but said “but nevertheless, I think it’s clear our numbers are going up.”
Harris said it’s not yet clear what’s causing the continued spread, but said it may be due at least in part to larger private gatherings. ADPH staff has mentioned a few outbreaks association with such gatherings, but Harris said it’s hard to know for certain if that’s the major driver in the state’s rising numbers.
“It’s football season and the holidays are coming up and school is back in session,” Harris said. “I think people are just not being as safe as they were.”
Harris noted that on ADPH’s color-coded, risk indicator dashboard, red counties, which denotes counties with rising cases and percent positivity, the 17 red counties on Friday were distributed across the state.
“So there’s not one event, or even a handful of events. It seems like there’s just a lot of things happening in a lot of places,” Harris said.
Alabama’s rising numbers are mirrored in many states. The U.S. reported more than 71,600 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, nearing the country’s record highs, set in July.
Birmingham approves $1.3 million contract for real-time crime center technology
Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.
The Birmingham City Council approved a five-year, $1.3 million contract with Motorola this week to provide new technology for the police department’s real-time crime center amid unease and public concern over the potential use of facial recognition software within the new systems.
Mayor Randall Woodfin insisted in his remarks made before the council that the new technology is meant to integrate existing hardware and technology inside the real-time crime center. “You’re not buying any additional new equipment,” he said, “You’re buying something to integrate all those systems.”
The software suite includes Motorola Solutions’s CommandCentral Aware, a system that aggregates video, image and other data information into one interface, and BriefCam, a “video synopsis” system that will further integrate and analyze information from Birmingham’s ShotSpotter systems, public cameras and police body cameras.
Briefcam offers facial recognition capabilities, which was the main concern of community members speaking before the council, and the risk that use of the technology could disproportionately affect Black people. Facial recognition technology has a record of racial bias and misidentifies Black people at rates five to 10 times higher than white people.
“Despite assurances that there will not be facial recognition implemented at this phase that does not prevent it from being implemented in the future,” said Joseph Baker, Founder of I Believe in Birmingham and one of the Birmingham residents voicing concern on the proposal. “I believe that this software, if fully implemented, can easily lead to violations of unreasonable searches.”
Another resident who spoke against the resolution was Byron Lagrone, director of engineering at medical software solutions company Abel Healthcare Enterprises. Lagrone pointed to IBM and Amazon as examples of companies that have halted or abandoned facial recognition and object tracking software altogether over racial bias concerns.
“The prevailing attitude, among technical people is this technology is not effective, and it causes high amounts of harm for next to no gain,” Lagrone said.
Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.
“It’s explicit in this contract that facial recognition will not be used,” Woodfin said, “[If] facial recognition wants to be used in the future of this city. It would have to be approved by this body. … The mayor’s office or the police department doesn’t have unilateral power to use facial recognition. That is not part of what our contractual relationship is with Motorola.”
Woodfin also clarified that the total $1.3 million price of the contract will not be paid as a lump sum but spread out over the five-year commitment.
The city council voted 8 to 1 to approve the contract, with District 8 Councilman Steven Hoyt speaking in favor of the use of facial recognition capabilities.
“You can’t say, ‘I’m going to build a house but I’m not going to use the restroom,’” Hoyt said. “If it’s in the house, you’re going to use the restroom. … If it has the capability of facial recognition, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to use it. I’m going to vote for it because I know we’ve got to have every tool we can garner to fight crime, because it’s out of hand.”
Hoyt also suggested a review of the information collected by the new system apparatus.
“I do think, for the public’s sake, we need to have some way we review that and see how it’s being used,” Hoyt said. “We need that to go along with this.”
District 3 Councilwoman Valerie A. Abbott — who said she was the victim of a burglary the day before the vote — echoed the mayor’s insistence that the facial recognition capabilities would not be deployed unless authorized by the city council, reading a letter from Motorola stating “in order to enable facial recognition, Motorola will require an addendum or change order to the contract,” which would have to come before a public meeting of the city council.
“I too would not want facial recognition,” Abbot said, “I’m voting in favor of this because the majority of my constituents are telling me they want more and better policing, capture of criminals, prevention of crime.”
District 5 Councilman Darrell O’Quinn was the lone no vote among the near-unanimous city council, stating that he had “some reservations about how we’re doing this and will vote my conscience.” Later, O’Quinn was quoted in BirminghamWatch, saying his vote reflected his concerns about “taking on a new debt obligation in the midst of a projected $63 million shortfall in revenue.”
Opinion | Doug Jones’s pathway to victory: Substance over lies
Jones said his work in the Senate should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity.
Alabama Sen. Doug Jones believes voters will ultimately see through Tommy Tuberville’s lazy campaign and lies, and that enough of them will be moved by his work over the last two years to send him back to D.C.
Jones’ comments came during a lengthy interview on the Alabama Politics This Week podcast. He also discussed his plans to address some of Alabama’s most pressing issues and also praised Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican.
But it was Jones’ comments about Alabama voters — and whether too many of them are incapable of moving away from the Republican Party — that were most interesting. Jones still believes there are open-minded voters in the state, and that there isn’t enough attention being paid to polls showing a growing dissatisfaction in Alabama with President Donald Trump.
“There are a number of things that Donald Trump has done that people (in Alabama) don’t agree with,” Jones said. “There are a number of things that he’s done that’s hurt Alabama and that they’re not OK with. That’s where I come in.”
Jones said his work in the Senate, where he’s sponsored the most bipartisan legislation over the last two years, should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity.
“I tell everyone, you owe it to yourself to look at every candidate and every issue,” Jones said. “I do that. I’ve been a Democrat all my life but I don’t think that I have ever pulled a straight lever. Because I look at every issue. I will tell you that there have been times that I didn’t vote for people who are Democrats for whatever reason — I just couldn’t do it. I think we owe it to ourselves to do that.”
Jones had the perfect example to drive the point home.
“Y’all all know our state auditor, Jim Zeigler? Jim wasn’t always a Republican. Jim’s first runs for office were as a Democrat.
“I rest my case.”
You can listen to the full interview at the Alabama Politics This Week website, or you can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.