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RICHMOND — The House of Delegates passed an amendment to the state Constitution on Feb. 1 aimed at ensuring the right to pray on public property, including public schools.
Opponents of the measure warned that it might violate the federal Constitution.
The amendment — HJ593, sponsored by Del. Bill Carrico (R-Grayson County) — adds a paragraph to the religious freedom section of the state Constitution, saying that "the people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage and traditions on public property, including public schools, shall not be infringed; however, the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions, including public school divisions, shall not compose school prayers, nor require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity."
Carrico said the measure was prompted by an incident at a high school in his district when a student gave a prayer over the public address system at a football game. The American Civil Liberties Union sent the school a letter afterward, warning that such a prayer was unconstitutional.
Under his amendment, Carrico said, "no longer would the secular world be able to tell anyone that their beliefs wouldn't be tolerated in public."
Opponents suggested that the measure would allow teachers to offer public prayers in front of a classroom, violating the rights of non-believing students and those of another faith.
"The supporters of this amendment don't know what it means to be a religious minority," said Del. David Englin (D-Alexandria), who is Jewish.
Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia ACLU, said after the vote that the measure appears to allow "clearly unconstitutional prayers."
Carrico carried a similar measure in 2005 that passed the House but died in a Senate committee. He acknowledged after the Feb. 1 vote that a similar outcome may await this year's measure.