RICHMOND — A proposed state constitutional amendment aimed at guaranteeing the right to pray in public schools and government meetings has been shelved for the year at the request of its lead sponsor.
Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, asked the Senate today to return the bill to the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee. The procedural move effectively kills the bill for the year, because today is the deadline for the Senate to act on its own legislation.
“I believe that we need to do some more work so that we’ll bring it back next year and make sure that it is stronger,” Stanley said in brief remarks on the Senate floor this afternoon.
Senate Joint Resolution 287 would require schools and other public venues to accommodate prayer, and also 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 last week. But when it reached the floor of the evenly-divided Senate, Stanley twice asked members to postpone action on the bill before having it sent back to the committee. The Senate has 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican, cannot break tie votes on constitutional amendments.
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 in 2015 and 2016 before voters could decide the issue.
Stanley and Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson County, co-sponsored the amendment, arguing that there is need to protect the rights of individuals and public bodies to pray on public property and protect students from religious discrimination.
“I believe this is one of the most important issues that I ever have addressed as a legislator,” said Carrico, a longtime advocate of amending Virginia’s constitution to permit prayer on public property.
The executive director of Virginia’s American Civil Liberties Union argued last week that the proposed amendment was intended to move Virginia toward being “a Christian state” and warned that it would be challenged in court if enacted.
– Michael Sluss