Separation of church and state is under attack in the very state that helped birth the principle – Virginia.
The Virginia House of Delegates voted Feb. 1 to approve two amendments to the Virginia Constitution that undermine church-state separation. One promotes prayer in public places (including public schools), and another permits taxpayer money to fund the religious training and theological education of certain students.
Del. Bill Carrico (R-Grayson County) sponsored HJR 593, which seeks to add a paragraph to the religious freedom section of the Virginia Constitution – language originally drafted by Thomas Jefferson – that states, in part, “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.” The resolution passed the House by a 61-33 vote.
Carrico said he decided to sponsor the resolution after a high school in his district received a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union reminding school officials that it is unconstitutional to allow students to give prayers over the public address system at football games.
Carrico’s amendment would allow the school to continue with these coercive types of practices.
“[N]o longer would the secular world be able to tell anyone that their beliefs wouldn’t be tolerated in public,” Carrico said during debate on the House floor.
Americans United wrote to the House Committee on Privileges and Elections to oppose this amendment.
“HJR 593 is a solution in search of a problem – private, voluntary prayer is currently allowed in public schools, and religion has not been zoned out of the public square,” the AU letter asserted. “And the solution would have harmful consequences – instead of providing additional protection for religious expression, this proposed amendment would allow for religious coercion in public schools and authorize government misuse of religion for political ends.”
Americans United also opposed the second amendment, HJR 614. The proposal will allow tax money to pay for private religious or theological education for National Guard chaplains.
“This proposed amendment would violate the U.S. Constitution and conflict with existing provisions of the Virginia Constitution,” wrote Dena Sher, AU’s state legislative counsel. “It would also amend the Virginia Constitution to create the precise ill that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison remedied long ago – taxing all Virginians to pay for particular faiths’ religious instruction.”
AU’s letter highlighted Madison’s famous Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, which he wrote in 1785 in response to a bill that would have levied taxes to pay for clergy to teach religion.
In the Remonstrance, Madison asked: “Who does not see…[t]hat the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment [of religion], may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?”
Despite AU’s opposition, HJR 614 passed the House with a 62-32 vote.
Both measures, however, appear to be in trouble in the state Senate.
On Feb. 9, a subcommittee of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee voted against both HJR 593 and HJR 614. That may derail the measures for this session.