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House Passes Freedom of Religion in Marriage Protection Act

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

Thursday, March 12, the Alabama House of Representatives passed the “Freedom of Religion in Marriage Protection Act.” The Alabama House Republican Caucus said in a statement that the bill, H.B. 56, is designed to protect judges and ministers from being compelled to officiate marriage ceremonies that violate their religious beliefs. The Freedom of Religion in Marriage was sponsored by State Representative Jim Hill (R-Odenville).

Representative Hill said in a statement, “With the recent federal court ruling related to the Sanctity of Marriage Amendment and the confusion that resulted, the need to clarify the duties of probate judges and ministers became increasingly apparent.”

Rep. Hill is a retired St. Clair County Judge. Rep. Hill said. “As a former judge, I would not want to be forced into a situation that violates my fundamental religious and moral beliefs.”  State Rep. Hill represents House District 50. Jim Hill was elected to his first term with no opponent in either the primary or the general election. His predecessor, Rep. Jim McClendon, was elected to the State Senate.

For over 200 years of Alabama history, the only marriages that were recognized by State law were between one man and one woman. 81 percent of Alabama voters even voted to add that definition of marriage to the State constitution. All of that changed however in January, when Mobile Federal Judge Callie Granade ruled that the Alabama Constitutional Amendment defining marriage as exclusively between one man and one woman violates the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment. While the Alabama Supreme Court has recently ordered Alabama’s probate judges not to issue the controversial marriage licenses, the issue is still in the federal court system.

The “Freedom of Religion in Marriage Protection Act” protects ministers and judges from being forced to officiate marriage ceremonies for any reason. It further clarifies that ministers and religious organizations are not required to recognize, officiate, or support marriages that violate their religious beliefs.

The bill is part of the House Republican Caucus’s “Alabama First” legislative agenda.”

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The Human Rights Group, HRC, condemned the bill’s passage.  They blamed Chief Justice Roy Moore (R) and accused the elected Chief Justice of using “legally dubious ways” to fight same-sex marriage and compared this to the violent suppression of Black people during the Jim Crowe era.

HRC Alabama State Director R. Ashley Jackson said in a statement, “Who’s in charge here? Is Governor Robert Bentley or Justice Moore running the state? Governor Bentley says that he wants to move the state forward, yet today Justice Moore and his allies in the state house took the state back decades.”  

Director Jackson wrote, “For today at least, it looks like Justice Moore is ruling the roost with his roughshod brand of discrimination.” 

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Rep. Patricia Todd (D) said, “Alabama started this week celebrating an end to racial discrimination and ended the week voting for discrimination.”

Todd (the only openly gay legislator in Alabama history) attempted to filibuster the act with the help of the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus.

The bill now goes to the State Senate.

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Josh Moon

How Alabama’s government stays broken

Josh Moon

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It doesn’t take a rocket scientist — or even any kind of scientist — to figure out that Alabama’s state government is broken. 

I mean, really, just look around. At the poverty, the poor education, the racism, the arrested public officials, the in-your-face public corruption and the complete disregard for the welfare of the majority of the people in the state. 

But, while the overall awfulness of Alabama’s governance might be easy to diagnose, the underlying causes — the daily examples that explain just how it stays so broken — are far harder to put your finger on. Because they are mostly wrapped up in mundane occurrences that take place within the walls of the State House or the capitol or the Supreme Court chambers or some other government building. 

Things like SB117/HB140. 

Those are the official names for a bill in both the senate and house that will “clarify existing law relating to disposal of solid waste.” 

Sounds innocent enough, right? Just gonna get this minor landfill situation straightened out. No biggie. 

Ah, but see, SB117/HB140 is the prime example of Alabama’s broken government. 

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It is the prime example of how your lawmakers aren’t working for you. It is the perfect encapsulation of everything that is wrong in this state.

Basically this landfill bill would make it OK to cover existing landfills with artificial covers, instead of the six inches of earth that is currently required. 

Now, this still doesn’t sound like a big deal. And it won’t be one if you don’t mind third-world diseases, the smell of rotting meat, frequent fires, coyotes and feral dogs roaming your streets and rats. Lots and lots of rats. 

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Applying six inches of earth each day to cover the garbage dumped at landfills prevents those things, the EPA figured out long ago. And it set those parameters in the rules it recommends to states. Alabama agreed, and the state adopted that rule, along with others, into law several years ago. 

Regular landfills have to cover with six inches of earth every day. Construction landfills have to do so once per week. 

This is a simple law. 

But if you operate a landfill, it’s an expensive one. And a time consuming one. 

Ah, but luckily, those laws are environmental laws. And in Alabama, we figured out long ago that environmental laws can be cumbersome and expensive, so we set up a bit of a … let’s just call it a workaround. 

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management. 

You’ll find we do this a lot — set up an entity that lies somewhere between the laws and the enforcement of the laws whose only job it seems is to give free passes to the bigwigs and corporations who violate those specific laws. 

We do it with the Ethics Commission. With the Public Service Commission. And with ADEM. 

It’s genius, really. The laws are still on the books and no one has to overtly roll back protections that would lead to rotting garbage attracting disease carrying rodents by the thousands. 

Instead, just get ADEM to quietly stop enforcing the law. 

Which is exactly what ADEM has done in this case. It was allowing landfills all over the state to cover garbage with tarps and various other materials. The tarps and other covers inevitably got holes in them, and a Noah’s Ark-level of animals descended upon the landfills to dine and spread the garbage all over adjoining neighborhoods. 

The neighbors, tired of the smell and the disease and the roaming animals, sued, citing in their legal filing horror stories of living near these maggot farms that smelled like death. 

They sued ADEM for failing to do its job, and for essentially rewriting the law to allow businesses to do whatever they wanted to do. 

And lo and behold, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals agreed with them. In a lengthy, detailed decision entered last October, the five-judge panel noted that ADEM didn’t have the authority to rewrite the law. 

The case is now before the Alabama Supreme Court, but everyone knows that the Appeals Court judges are correct. 

But why bother with trying to win over judges when you can instead just change the laws through the crooks in the Alabama Legislature? 

And so, here we are, with a handful of lawmakers in both chambers of the legislature willing to attach their names to legislation that will allow businesses to ignore the standards imposed by the EPA, ignore the standards that are commonplace in most other states and change Alabama law to benefit a handful of landfill owners at the expense of thousands of Alabama citizens. 

And this, kids, is how Alabama’s government stays broken. 

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House

House votes to outlaw smoking, vaping in automobiles with children present

Brandon Moseley

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Tuesday, the Alabama House of Representatives voted for legislation to be smoking and vaping in motor vehicles if there is a child under 14 years of age.

House Bill 46 is sponsored by State Representatives Rolanda Hollis (D-Birmingham).

HB46 as introduced by Hollis would have banned smoking with children in automobiles/

State Representative John Rogers (D-Birmingham) asked, “Would this give a police officer the ability to stop a car anytime that a police wants to stop them and say I stopped you because I thought you were smoking.”

Rogers warned that this would give the police an, “Excuse to stop a person of color or anyone else.”

Hollis said, “An amendment will address this.”

Rogers said that this would be like, “Bloomberg’s stop and frisk.”

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Rep. Scott Stadthagen (R-Hartselle) said, “Thank you for bringing this bill. There is nothing more disturbing than to be at a red light and see someone smoking with a baby in the car.”

Rep. Neil Rafferty (D-Birmingham) introduced an amendment that establishes this as a secondary infraction. Police could not stop someone for smoking with children in the car; but if they were stopped for another reason, then the officer could then cite them for this infraction.

Hollis agreed to accept Rafferty’s amendment as a friendly amendment and the House voted to add the amendment to the bill.

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Rep. Brett Easterbrook (R-Fruitdale) said, “I agree with the idea that it is ridiculous that an adult smokes with children in the car; but It is also ridiculous to tell a family everything that they can do in a car that they paid for.”

Rep. Bob Fincher (R-Woodland) said, “When I was a child both of my parents smoked in the car and I survived, and I am 76 years old now.”

“When we come to the point of telling people what they can do in their own cars, at some point we will tell them that they can’t smoke in their own home,” Fincher warned. “If you don’t have the right to do the wrong thing then we don’t have any rights at all.”

Hollis replied, “This bill does not tell you that you can not smoke. Smoke all you want to. This is about the health of children.”

Rep. Victor Gaston (R-Mobile) said, “I am Pro-Life and Pro-Life for a six-year old is not having to ride in a car with smokers and the windows up.”

Rep. Barbara Drummond (D-Mobile) proposed an amendment to also ban vaping in cars with children present.

Hollis refused and said, “Bring your own bill.”

Rep. Jim Hill (R-Odenville) said, “If we are not going to let people smoke in cars we should not let them vape in cars with children present. If we deny one, we ought to deny both.”

Rep. Chris Blackshear (R-Phenix City) said, “Thank you for bringing this bill. I am one hundred percent behind the amendment as well.”

Drummond brought her amendment anyway.

Hollis said, “I look at tobacco smoking and vaping differently. How are they the same?”

Drummond said, “The effects are the same.”

Hollis eventually relented and accepted Drummond’s vaping amendment. The amendment passed 71 to 8.

The House passed HB46 on a vote of 78 to 19. It now goes to the Alabama Senate for their consideration.

Tuesday was day five of the 2020 Alabama regular legislative session. Neither budget committee has introduced a budget yet and Gov. Ivey’s gambling commission has not released any legislation proposals yet. The legislature can meet for a maximum of thirty days in a regular session.

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Education

Alabama voters will decide whether to fire the state school board

Jessa Reid Bolling

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The fate of the state school board will be decided by Alabama voters on March 3. 

A proposed constitutional amendment, Amendment One, asks if voters want to change how the folks in charge of education at the state level are selected. 

A yes vote would abolish the elected State Board of Education and the Board-appointed position of State Superintendent of Education. Instead, there will be a Governor-appointed Commission, the Alabama Commission on Elementary and Secondary Education. The Commission would appoint a Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education, to replace the existing state Superintendent’s position.

A no vote would leave the current system in place, meaning school board members would still be elected by voters based on districts. 

The Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) conducted an analysis of the amendment, highlighting both strengths and weaknesses of the amendment. 

“Proponents say elected boards are more responsive to the public will. As elected officials, board members have their rightful place and, ideally, are only responsible to the people who elected them. They should be more empowered to oppose what they believe is not in the interests of the state’s schools and children.

At the same time, as elected officials, re-election is an important goal, if not the central goal. Thus elected board members may find themselves where the interests and desires of voters conflict with policies, programs and practices that best serve children. 

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Conversely, proponents of appointed boards cite the strength of the vetting process in creating boards with knowledgeable, skilled, effective board members. An appointment process allows the governor to consider the needs of the board and the qualities different candidates would bring. 

Others cite that governor-appointed boards and appointed superintendents create a more efficient, aligned, and harmonious system for setting and implementing education priorities. Ambitious and substantive changes to a state’s school system are more feasible in a more efficient system that encourages collaboration and strengthens the governor’s capacity to effect change. However, while somewhat insulated, appointed boards are not immune from political pressure.”

Earlier this month, Governor Kay Ivey addressed PARCA at the annual Albert Brewer Legacy lunch at the Harbert Center in Birmingham, asking the council to support Amendment One.

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“Alabama is at the bottom in about every education category that can be found,” Ivey said. “Too many of our third graders cannot read and too many of our high school graduates are not ready for a career or college.”

“Vote yes on amendment one when you go to the polls on March 3,” Ivey said. “We have had three superintendents in five years. We can do better.”

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Courts

Legislation would limit death penalty appeals

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth on Tuesday discussed legislation that would reduce the length of some death penalty appeals. 

“Over the last 13 month, seven Alabama law enforcement officers have been killed in the line of duty by violent criminals, which is a new record and obviously not one the state of Alabama is proud of,” Ainsworth said during the press conference at the Alabama State House on Tuesday. “Back the blue has got to be more than just a slogan. Actions must follow words.” 

Ainsworth said that death row inmates in Alabama serve approximately 14 years on average before executions are carried out, and that there needs to be a “fair but expedited process in Alabama.” 

The proposed legislation would prevent the Alabama Supreme Court from hearing death row appeals in capital murder cases, and would stop all such appeals at the state Court of Criminal Appeals level. 

The bills would also require the criminal appeals court to expedite death row appeals when possible, and would reduce the amount of time a person has to appeal such convictions to the U.S. Supreme Court, Ainsworth said. 

“This legislation still affords a thorough appeals process, and all the protections guaranteed to them under the U.S. Constitution,” Ainsworth said. “It has been designed to provide both equal justice to inmates, and swifter justice to their victims.” 

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, a candidate for a seat on the state Supreme Court and sponsor of the senate’s version of the bill, said during the press conference that while overall crime rates have been declining, murders in Alabama have increased 25 percent over the last three years. 

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“I’ve always been an advocate for criminal justice reform, but let me tell you something, public safety is first and foremost, Ward said. “…I think this is a reasonable bill. It still provides for due process.” 

State Rep. Connie Row,R-Jasper, is sponsoring the bill in the House and said that as a former police chief she recognizes the value of the lives of those who serve the public. She also worked with crime victims in capital cases, she said, and in “capital cases it’s seeing if you can live long enough to see justice served in a death penalty case.” 

The bills also add language that would allow the Alabama Department of Corrections to conduct executions at facilities other than the Holman Correctional Facility near Atmore, where the state’s death chamber is currently located. 

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ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn said in January that all death row inmates were being moved to Holman, while the majority of the prison’s areas for other incarcerated men was being closed due to concerns over maintenance problems in a tunnel that carries utilities to those portions of the prison. The death row section of Holman was to remain open, Dunn said. 

There are 175 people serving on the state’s death row, according to Alabama Department of Corrections statistics

Attempts Tuesday to reach staff at the Equal Justice Initiative for comment on the legislation were unsuccessful. The Montgomery legal aid nonprofit works to exonerate death row inmates, among its other initiatives. 

According to the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center 167 incarcerated people on death row in the U.S. have been exonerated and released from prison since 1973. Among those formerly on death row, six were scheduled to die by execution in Alabama. 

The last Alabama death row inmate exonerated was Anthony Hinton, freed in April 2015 after spending 30 years on death row for the 1985 murders of two fast food supervisors in Birmingham. 

The only evidence presented at Hinton’s trial was ballistics testing state prosecutors said proved the bullets that killed the two men came from a gun Hinton’s mother owned. 

Hinton lost appeals for a decade before the Equal Justice Initiative took up his case. Subsequent ballistics testing by the nonprofit in 2002 proved that the bullets weren’t a match for the firearm, but the state declined to re-examine the case. 

It took another 12 years for Hinton’s appeal to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court’s ruling and granted a new trial. 

The judge in his new trial dismissed the charges after the state’s prosecutors determined through additional testing that the bullets could not have come from Hinton’s mother’s gun. 

A 2009 study by professors at the University of Colorado and published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology found that 88 percent of the leading criminologists in the U.S. polled did not believe the death penalty effectively deters crime.

Of the leading criminologists polled in the study, 87 percent said that speeding up executions would not add a deterrent effect on crime.

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