Alabama’s Amendment One raises religious freedom concerns

A Constitutional amendment on the Alabama ballot this week is raising concerns in the religious community across the state.

“The American and Alabama Laws for Alabama Courts Amendment,” better known as Amendment One, would bar courts in the state from considering or applying any foreign law in cases where it would violate the Constitutional rights of Alabamians. It is one of five amendments on the Nov. 4 ballot.

The amendment would “prohibit the State of Alabama from giving full faith and credit to public acts, records, or judicial proceedings of another state that violate the public policy of the State of Alabama and to prohibit the application of foreign law in violation of rights guaranteed natural citizens by the United States and Alabama Constitutions, and the statutes, laws, and public policy thereof, but without application to business entities.”

While many see it as an attempt to keep Sharia, or Muslim religious law, from entering the state’s legal system, many faith groups say the vague wording of the amendment will have serious implications across the board.

Sponsored by Sen. Gerald Allen of Tuscaloosa, the bill passed the state Senate, 22-6, and the House, 75-6, in 2013. In 2011, Allen had proposed a law banning the use of Sharia in Alabama courts, a measure that had passed in other states but has since been struck down.

This past session Allen also introduced the “Merry Christmas” bill, protecting public school teachers and students “who want to express traditional winter greetings like ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Happy Hanukkah’” from lawsuits.

Allen has said that the amendment is not aimed at any particular religion, but is an attempt to make certain that only U.S. laws are considered in state courts. In recent years, some judges have cited international law or precedents in other countries in cases involving capital punishment, for example.

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg of Birmingham’s Temple Beth-El said “In an attempt to not be bigoted, this amendment is worded so broadly that it will affect every religion in the state. It could nullify marriages that are consecrated by religious laws, and affect the way religion is practiced in our state.”

The Brennan Center for Justice said this law and others like it are “a carefully choreographed series of measures designed to achieve anti-Muslim goals using neutral statutory language.”

According to the Alabama Faith Council, one of the council’s Muslim members stated the law would make it illegal for him to perform marriages according to his religious tradition.

The Brennan Center also described how Jewish law could be affected. The difficulties Jewish women sometimes have in obtaining a get, a religious document of divorce, “could lead courts to construe Jewish marriages as ‘product[s] of a legal system which is obnoxious to equal rights based on gender’.”

The amendment’s wording could similarly be used to refuse recognition of religious marriages performed outside the United States. Those marriages are currently considered valid under U.S. law unless they otherwise violate U.S. law.

That lack of recognition would have repercussions in numerous other family law areas, such as divorce, property, probate and custody.

Paul Horwitz, a law professor at the University of Alabama, cites prenuptial agreements that are drawn up according to Jewish law, or Christians who resolve disputes using Biblical arbitration principles, all of which would now be considered “foreign law.”

“None of these agreements require Alabama courts to decide religious questions. The actual judgment is reached by arbitrators trained in religious law. The court’s only job is to make sure the judgment was conducted fairly and is properly enforced,” Horwitz wrote.

Christians Against Amendment One notes that “the broad definition of ‘foreign laws’ used in Amendment One would apply to foreign adoption laws, negating international adoptions in Alabama.” They state a Missouri law was struck down for that reason.

The group also states that “foreign laws” could refer to church by-laws that govern who they are permitted to hire and ordain.

The amendment also states that Alabama would not be required to extend “full faith and credit” to other states when it conflicts with Alabama law. The “full faith” clause of the U.S. Constitution requires states to recognize judicial proceedings of other states.

Same-sex marriage proponents see the clause as a way to establish recognition of their unions in the state, but the amendment is seen by many as an attempt to keep Alabama from being forced to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Allen has said he wasn’t taking on same-sex marriage with the amendment, but that it would affect custody rights in such cases.

Randy Brinson, president of the Alabama Christian Coalition, told that the bill is “a tremendous waste of effort” and “silliness.”