"If Congress can open with a prayer, and the state of Alabama Legislature can, I don't see why schools can't," said Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, the bill's sponsor.
Hurst's bill would require schools to set aside the first portion of the first class period every day "for study of the formal procedures followed by U.S. Congress," which must include "a reading verbatim of one of the opening prayers" given at the opening of the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives.
Hurst said the bill would help students learn more about history and civics.
"They could read the prayer from the day war was declared in World War II," he said. "They could read the prayer the day after Sept. 11."
The bill would limit the daily instruction on congressional procedures to 15 minutes per day. That instruction could include teaching about other procedures of Congress, but would always include the reading of a prayer.
Susan Watson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, said the bill was a clear attempt to sneak teacher-led prayer into schools through a back door.
"Religious practices and beliefs are best taught at home and in our religious institutions," she said. "The Alabama Legislature can try to pass anything it wants, but our public schools must still abide by the United States Constitution."
Advocates for school prayer have long argued that state and federal legislatures have always opened their sessions with an invocation. Watson said a prayer in schools isn't the same as prayer in the a legislative body, whose members are there voluntarily.
"Children in school are a captive audience," she said.
Hurst said his bill would allow teachers or principals to choose the prayer to be read to students every day.
"I wouldn't be the one picking out the prayer," he said. Asked if he had a particular favorite among the prayers delivered before either Congress or the Alabama Legislature, Hurst said no.
With few exceptions, the chaplains of the U.S. House and Senate have been Protestant ministers, according to records maintained by Congress. Guest chaplains often deliver the opening prayer. The Star found at least one Muslim invocation, delivered in the last year. A Hindu invocation, delivered in 2007, sparked protest from Christian conservative groups, according to news reports from the time.
Attempts to reach Amy Marlowe, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Education Association, were unsuccessful early Monday afternoon.
Hurst’s opponent in the Republican primary, Munford resident Steve Dean, said he strongly supported school prayer, but had yet to make a decision on Hurst’s bill.
“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” he said. “It’s interesting, but I don’t jump in to support a bill I haven’t read.”
Talladega resident Stephanie Engle, who is running as a Democrat against Hurst, said there were better ways to address faith in the classroom.
“I think prayer is important in anybody’s life,” she said. “I think it would behoove everyone to have a course in comparative religions, but setting aside 15 minutes for a prepared prayer isn’t as constructive.”
Hurst's bill is scheduled for a public hearing before the Education Policy Committee in the Alabama House of Representatives Wednesday.
Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.