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Feb 22 2005
Virginia Senate Panel Kills Religious Freedom Amendment


Associated Press Writer

(AP) - A proposed state constitutional amendment that would expand the right to preach or pray in public property, including classrooms, died Monday before a Senate committee in Richmond.

The measure failed on a 5-10 vote with opponents saying the problem of errant public school officials cracking down on religious expression shows a need for "a civics lesson," not rewriting Virginia's 220-year-old Bill of Rights.

Del. Charles W. Carrico Sr., the sponsor of the bill, said he brought the resolution to reverse what he called a "zero-tolerance policy" against Christians exercising their beliefs in schools.

"To profess your faith, it's a part of your belief. Recently, it's been to a point where the secular world has said you can only profess your faith within the four walls of your church ... or you can only pray within a closet," said Carrico, R-Grayson County.

"Our country was built on the Christian principles of the Bible," he said. "Today, our Constitution, in my opinion, has to be strengthened to protect those rights of all Christians around this country."

Opponents argued (and supporters of the measure conceded) that the amendment would only cement into the Constitution existing court decisions upholding the right of students to independently pray in school -- legal precedents unknown to many school administrators.

"Now, we can debate whether or not it is needed, but my view ... is that it does nothing more than constitutionalizes that which is already out there," said Sen. William C. Mims, an attorney. "There is, I think, a tendency on the part of some school administrators to be unaware of these precedents."

Michael P. Farris, a conservative constitutional lawyer who founded a national home-schooling advocacy organization, testified in support of Carrico's measure that it does nothing different than the current federal or state constitutions.

He defended the amendment, however, as one that would protect the religious free speech, not the prerogative of schools to orchestrate prayer.

"The essence of this amendment is that religious speech is not second-class speech, and it's not written for Christianity, it's written for all religions," said Farris, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in 1993.

"I think we need a constitutional provision that's for the people -- all the people -- including local government officials who frankly need a civics lesson," he said.

As an example, Farris recalled defending a child who had been praying silently over his lunch when the principal forced him to stop.

"This has got to stop. This amendment would focus Virginia's attention by the ballot process and passing this through," Farris said. "I've had friends make a lot of money in attorney's fees against Virginia schools doing stupid things in this area."

In nearly two hours of intense debate before the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, both sides sought to establish themselves as the rightful heirs to Thomas Jefferson, George Mason and James Madison, authors of state and national freedom-of-religion guarantees.

Sen. John S. Edwards, D-Roanoke, asked Carrico whether the General Assembly could improve on the work of the founders.

"Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (were) dealing with a new nation. The nation was just a baby at that time," Carrico said.

Edwards continued: "Do you think we're wiser than they?"

"I don't think I'm any wiser, but I am wiser than Thomas Jefferson was in my day. He doesn't understand the things that are coming down. He hasn't lived in my day," Carrico replied.

Sen. Kenneth Cuccinelli said contemporary court rulings that the founders could not have envisioned justify Carrico's amendment. He said U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the early '60s striking down organized prayer by school officials "have swung the pendulum too far the other way."

"The fact of the matter is the founders, who would have never thought of atheism as a religion, are now confronted with a Supreme Court that does," said Cuccinelli, R-Fairfax County.

Sen. Richard L. Saslaw said the measure would "open a floodgate of lawsuits" against the state if it were to become part of the Constitution. And Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, asked how far the General Assembly would go to in writing the morals of the day into the Constitution if the resolution passed.

"We've got to exercise some intellectual discipline when it comes to this issue," Norment said.

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