Legislature gets religion (must be an election year)

Pandering to religious conservatives has been an equal opportunity sport this election year in the General Assembly. Within a four-day span last week, lawmakers upheld the right of students and state employees to say "Merry Christmas," authorized counties to display the Ten Commandments and put Georgia on course to teach the Bible in public schools.

While Republicans sponsored all three of the measures that passed, Democrats vied for credit for the Bible bill by pushing an alternative.

"There was bickering about who is more religious," said Maggie Garrett, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, which has repeatedly drawn fire from religious conservatives for challenging such measures in court. "They're playing politics with God."

Critics of the Merry Christmas bill argued that it was motivated more to score political points than out of any actual threat to the civil liberties of Georgians.

The bill was prefiled by Rep. Clay Cox, R-Lilburn, during the Christmas season, as a controversy raged over conservative talk radio and cable television over such slights to Christianity - real or perceived - as retail chains instructing employees to greet shoppers with something secular like "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."

The Ten Commandments legislation, on the other hand, at least enjoyed the distinction of stemming without question from a real issue.

Barrow County was embroiled for several years in a lawsuit over the display of God's commandments to Moses and the Israelites in a breezeway at the courthouse in Winder.

County officials removed the display last summer in settling out of court a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of an anonymous plaintiff.

That setback prompted Barrow's two representatives in the House - Republican Reps. Terry England of Auburn and Tommy Benton of Jefferson - to introduce legislation authorizing counties to display the Ten Commandments in their courthouses and instructing Georgia's attorney general to defend any lawsuits that might arise from those exhibits.

The bill was crafted to pass legal muster by providing that the Ten Commandments can only be displayed beside two other documents pertaining to America's religious heritage: the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration of Independence.

Most Democrats and all but one Republican voted for the bill last week.

During a debate that lasted nearly two hours, that GOP lone wolf - Rep. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody - complained that lawmakers could have spent that time on something more central to their mission, say, education or health care.

"I'm a lot more concerned about academic achievement, the dropout rate and all those people on waiting lists for services than where we hang the Ten Commandments," he said.

While the vast majority of the speechifying in favor of the Ten Commandments bill came from Republicans, both parties pitched competing versions of the Bible bill in the Senate on Friday.

Majority Leader Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, argued that his proposal was better because it would provide that the Bible be used as the text for high-school elective courses on the Bible as history and literature.

"If we're going to teach about the Bible ... let's allow the kids to use the Bible," said Williams, who has been championing the legislation since 1999.

Democrats countered that Williams' bill was unconstitutional and accused Republicans of being more interested in having a campaign issue than a course for Georgia students that would be upheld in court.

"We have to be very careful not to open up liability that could cost the state millions of dollars," said Sen. Tim Golden, D-Valdosta, chief sponsor of the Democratic proposal.

Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said it's smart politics for Georgia Democrats not to let Republicans gain a monopoly over faith-based legislation.

"Religious conservatives have become the core constituency of the Republican Party," he said. "To the extent those voters can be won away, each one is a net shift of two."

But Republicans hold the cards in the Legislature. With their control of the Senate, they were able to pass their version of the Bible bill over the Democrats' plan.

"The minority party has a hard time coming up with ideas that have a reasonable chance of passing," Bullock said. "Then, when it's a popular idea, it gets taken over by the majority party."

Dave Williams is a staff writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.