A proposed state constitutional amendment that would guarantee the right to pray in public schools and government meetings cleared a Virginia Senate committee this evening, beginning a vigorous debate about the intent and reach of the legislation.
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 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, said Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, the lead sponsor of the resolution.
“We’re not promoting coercion,” Stanley said. “We’re recognizing people’s right to pray as they see fit. Prayer is under attack.”
Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson County, is a co-sponsor of the amendment. Carrico has been a long-time 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-Henrico County, asked if those provisions could enable a public school student to opt out of studying the Big Bang theory.
“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 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.”
– Michael Sluss