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James L. Evans

Why rewriting our state constitution is a faith matter

I wrote a column recently encouraging folks to call the state Senate and voice support for allowing Alabamians to vote on whether to rewrite our outdated state constitution. Interestingly enough, instead of calling the Senate, a good many folks called me and wondered why I was writing about this issue in a space devoted to "faith matters."

It's a fair question, but in all honesty, a question I thought had a self-evident answer. But, because it appears the answer is not evident to everyone, I will delineate a few of the more obvious problems with our present state constitution as seen through the eyes of faith. By the way, all that follows can be found on the Web site of Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform (www.constitutional
reform.org).

First and foremost, our present constitution locks us into an unfair and unjust income tax. The wealthiest 1 percent of Alabamians pays about 4 percent of their earnings in state taxes. Meanwhile, the poorest fifth of the state pays nearly 11 percent of their earnings in state taxes.

If we are to have an income tax, it should be progressive with those earning the least paying the least. There should also be an exemption for those who earn below a certain level. In Mississippi, for example, the state does not begin collecting income tax until a family income exceeds $19,000. In Alabama, we begin collecting at $4,600.

People of faith are challenged everywhere in the Scriptures to provide economic relief for the poor, and to treat them fairly. Our present system does neither.

This situation is complicated by other features of our state constitution. For instance, our present constitution restricts local democracy. Everything must pass through Montgomery. As a result, 50 percent of the debates in the state legislature concern local issues. Over 70 percent of amendments in our constitution apply to a single city or county. This results in a grossly inefficient state government that is increasingly incapable of responding to the needs of the people of our state.

This inability of local governments to act on their own is especially crippling in terms of economic development. Our constitution prohibits local governments from participating in internal improvements or economic development activities.

Over 50 amendments of our constitution's 700 were enacted to bypass this provision for certain governmental bodies. For others, the restrictions remain. Surely anyone can see the unfairness inherent in such a system.

Restricting local governments from economic development issues also flies in the face of the often quoted jab at the poor that they should "pull themselves up by their boot straps." Maybe if our constitution would allow them to have bootstraps, they just might pull themselves up with them.

Behind this political and economic conundrum lies an insidious evil, which still finds expression in our state constitution. The drafters of the 1901 constitution designed the document to strip voting power from Alabama's black citizens. And it worked. By 1903 the number of registered black voters dropped from more than 180,000 to less than 4,000.

Of course, federal law has voided this portion of our constitution, yet we cling to the language. Why? Why not renounce the racism inherent in our state document, and in doing so repent of its evil? Do we want it there like some perverse memorial to a dubious golden age of white hegemony?

Whatever the reason, the language should go along with all the other impediments to community and justice. And if these concerns are not matters of faith, then the Bible I've been reading these many years has it all wrong.

James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church. He can be reached at faith matters@mindspring.com.

James L. Evans James L. Evans

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