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Veto likely for student prayer protection bill

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By Landmark News Service

Legislation aimed at ensuring students’ right to pray and engage in other religious expression at school has passed the General Assembly, but not by sufficient margins to overcome a promised veto by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
State Sen. Bill Carrico’s bill passed the House of Delegates on a 64-34 vote on Feb. 26. It had earlier cleared the Senate, 20-18. Neither vote is enough to override a veto, which requires a two-thirds majority.

A spokesman for McAuliffe has said he will veto the measure because of concerns about its constitutionality.
The legislation from Carrico (R-Grayson County) spells out the right of students to voluntarily pray or engage in religious activities at school, organize prayer groups and other religious gatherings, and wear clothing, accessories and jewelry that display religious messages or symbols.
The bill would require school divisions to adopt a policy allowing student speakers to express a religious viewpoint at school events.
House supporters of the measure said it would prevent school administrators and teachers from infringing on students’ constitutional rights.
Del. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William County) called it “a foundational piece of legislation.”
“Freedom requires virtue. Virtue requires faith of some sort. And faith of any sort requires freedom,” Lingamfelter said. The measure would ensure that “every single student and every single person in the commonwealth of Virginia understands that the free expression of your views, even in faith, are foundational to who we are.”
Del. Joe Morrissey (D-Henrico County) countered that the legislation is unnecessary because students are already guaranteed freedom of religious expression.
“There is a misconception that federal and state law doesn’t protect free speech right now. That’s wrong,” Morrissey said.
The Carrico bill would be problematic in elementary and high school, where students are required to attend school functions and consequently would be unable to avoid unwelcome religious expression, he said.
The House vote fell generally along party lines, with Republicans supporting the measure and Democrats opposing it. Two Democrats voted “yes” and four Republicans voted “no.” Two Republicans did not vote.
Carrico issued a statement Thursday urging the governor to sign the bill: “He has certainly made sweeping policy gestures in his first few months as governor based on his interpretation of the First Amendment, and to veto this bill would be inconsistent with other positions he has taken.
“He should sign this legislation, or at the very least, talk to the bill sponsors and the public about his reasons otherwise.”
Said Carrico: “Students’ First Amendment rights do not evaporate when they walk into a public school, and this bill codifies that.  It’s a simple, common-sense bill that is a positive step for the commonwealth.”