Alabama House committee approves bill limiting DEI, ‘divisive concepts’

Rep. Ed Oliver, R-Dadeville, in the chamber of the Alabama House of Representatives on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (Stew Milne/Alabama Reflector)

An Alabama House committee Tuesday approved a bill that would prevent public funding of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs and potentially punish or terminate teachers or employees who use “divisive concepts,” as defined in the bill.

SB 129, sponsored by Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, passed after a hour-long public hearing where supporters said that the bill was needed to maintain equal treatment in the state and opponents said it would hinder higher education institutions and impact students’ lives.

The legislation would prevent teachers or other employees from making other people “affirm, adopt ot adhere” to a list of divisive concepts. The “divisive concepts” include “That, by virtue of an individual’s race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin, the individual is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.”

The bill also bans agencies from requiring employees to participate in DEI programs.

Rep. Ed Oliver, R-Dadeville, a past sponsor of the legislation, will carry the bill in the House. He told the House State Government Committee  the bill would not impact the teaching of history.

“Universities can meet accreditor requirements and create truly welcoming and inclusive communities without establishing highly ideological DEI programs,” he said.

Supporters of the legislation, mostly from conservative organizations, accused ideologues of taking over DEI programs. 

“Diversity, equity and inclusion are three words that have been hijacked and are being used to tear down our public institutions, state agencies and corporations,” said Becky Gerritson, executive director of the conservative Eagle Forum of Alabama.

Emily Jones, with Moms for Liberty, a right-leaning parents’ group whose chapters have pushed to restrict or ban books in libraries around the country, particularly those with LGBTQ+ themes, said that her son would be considered an “oppressive white male” under DEI principles.

“DEI is very divisive, it divides people into categories, it labels them, it pits people against one another,” she said.

Opponents of the legislation said that it could harm student experiences and business in the state. 

Sean Atchison, a senior at the University of Alabama, said the bill could impact students’ employment prospects as companies may not come to the state. He said he felt better prepared due to his time at the university and its programs.

“Let me also note I’m a white man,” he said. “I’m from south Alabama. I’m from the middle of nowhere. I’ve never, ever felt oppressed by a DEI program. I’ve never felt threatened nor hurt. I feel educated. I feel stronger than ever and more confident in my ability to get a job that will benefit the long term future of this state than ever before.” 

Dr. Morissa Ladinsky, a medical provider and instructor with the University of Alabama Birmingham, said that major companies use DEI, which indicates it being good business.

“This bill creates a pernicious optic of negativity, while we Alabama are already under a national microscope,” she said.

Democrats on the committee also questioned the legislation.

Rep. Prince Chestnut, D-Selma, went through the bill, outlining his concerns. Among them, he said the legislation could negatively affect Historically Black Colleges or Universities (HBCUs).

“HBCUs were created to give us an opportunity and space to be able to be creative and grow and to be self-sufficient, self-sustaining,” he said. “This is going to handicap and possibly destroy that opportunity.”

Democrats tried to add amendments to the bill, but they failed. Republicans on the committee had two amendments.

One amendment, proposed by Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, was said to further define contractors and said that they would not violate the act unless they did so knowingly. Another from Rep. Marcus Paramore, R-Troy, was said to change “providing medical or mental health care” to “providing medical, mental or any health care.”

Neither amendment was online as of early Wednesday afternoon and the staff did not have additional copies.

The bill passed on a voice vote. It moves to the full House of Representatives.

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