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RICHMOND — A proposed state constitutional amendment that would guarantee the right to pray in public schools and government meetings cleared a Virginia Senate committee on Jan. 29, beginning a vigorous debate about the intent and reach of the legislation.
The amendment resolution is co-sponsored by two senators representing part of the Twin Counties, Bill Carrico (R-Grayson County) and Bill Stanley (R-Franklin County.)
The proposed amendment also would prohibit public schools from compelling a student “to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his religious beliefs.”
The Republican-controlled Senate Privileges and Elections Committee endorsed the bill (Senate Joint Resolution 287) on a party-line vote of 8-6, sending it to the full Senate for a vote.
The sponsors of the proposed amendment said they want to protect the rights of individuals and public bodies to pray on public property and at public schools and protect students from religious discrimination. The executive director of Virginia’s American Civil Liberties Union said the amendment is intended to move Virginia toward being “a Christian state” and warned that it would be challenged in court if enacted.
For a constitutional amendment to be enacted, it must pass the General Assembly in consecutive sessions separated by an election, and then be approved by voters in a referendum. That means the Senate and House of Delegates would have to pass the amendment this year and next year to get it on the ballot in November 2014.
The proposed amendment is modeled on a measure that Missouri voters approved overwhelmingly in an August 2012 referendum, Stanley said.
“We’re not promoting coercion,” he said. “We’re recognizing people’s right to pray as they see fit. Prayer is under attack.”
Stanley represented Pittsylvania County’s Board of Supervisors when it was sued by the ACLU for opening its meetings with a prayer. But Stanley said the Pittsylvania suit did not motivate him to introduce the amendment.
Carrico has been a longtime advocate of amending Virginia’s constitution to permit prayer on public property, including schools.
The debate in Tuesday’s committee meeting focused largely on a portion of the lengthy amendment dealing with students’ religious beliefs and their academic requirements. The proposed amendment states that students may express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments “free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work.” It also prohibits schools from forcing students to participate in assignments that violate their religious beliefs.
Sen. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond) asked if those provisions could enable a public school student to opt out of studying the “Big Bang” theory of the universe’s creation if that went against the student’s beliefs in intelligent design.
“To say that this clause would give any student the ability to say, ‘Doing homework violates my religious beliefs’ — I think everyone knows better than that,” Stanley said.
Stanley reached for another example, saying the amendment would protect a Muslim student who objected to dissecting a fetal pig for religious reasons.
Deputy Attorney General Wesley Russell told the committee that the bill is constitutional and amounts to “an acknowledgment of the state’s ability to accommodate the free expression of religion of its citizens without establishing a religion.”
Russell said the amendment is consistent with current law but added: “It is quite clear from the number of cases that have come up that current law is in need of clarification.”
Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, the executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said the state code already protects student-initiated prayer and religious expressions, and that her organization has defended those rights. But the ACLU also has argued that public bodies should not pray in one religion as part of their official business, she added. She argued that portions of the proposed amendment go “well beyond” the First Amendment to U.S. Constitution and Virginia’s Statute of Religious Freedom.
“I can’t tell you how many lawsuits are buried in this language,” Gastanaga said.
Her warning didn’t persuade the committee’s chairman, Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), who said, “Just because there are going to be lawsuits doesn’t mean something’s wrong.”
After the meeting, Gastanaga said the bill’s authors appeared to be targeting gays by inserting language stating that the amendment cannot be construed “to excuse acts of licentiousness or justify practices inconsistent with the good order, peace or safety of the Commonwealth.”
Stanley said the assertion was wrong, and that the provision was meant to apply to people such as polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting underage followers.