Virginia House Passes Amendment Erasing Church-state Protections In State Constitution

Watchdog Group Says Measure Threatens Religious Liberty Legacy

The Virginia House of Delegates has approved a sweeping amendment that would erase church-state protections from the state constitution and allow officially sanctioned prayer in the public schools.

The bill, HJ 537, proposes an amendment to the state's constitution that would "permit the exercise of religious expression, including prayer and 'religious beliefs, heritage, and traditions' on public property, including public schools...."

The Virginia House passed the proposed amendment by a 69-27 vote yesterday. It has been submitted to the Senate, which could consider it before the legislative session concludes on Feb. 26. (Constitutional amendments must win House and Senate passage in two sessions before being placed on a statewide ballot for voters.)

"The Virginia delegates who are pushing this scheme have a shockingly ill-informed understanding of religious freedom," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "This amendment would open a Pandora's box of religious liberty problems. It is imperative for the Senate to reject this unwise plan."

Lynn charged that the amendment's broad language could be interpreted to allow officially sanctioned worship services at public schools and governmental events, as well as the display of sectarian symbols at courthouses, schools and other public buildings.

Lynn noted that Virginia legislators are tampering with the religious liberty legacy of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, two revered Virginia founders who pioneered the concept of church-state separation in America.

"I do not believe that today's politicians are likely to improve on the work of Jefferson and Madison," Lynn continued. "I am certain that the amendment just approved by the Virginia House does not do so. This scheme destroys many of the constitutional protections that Virginians count on."

The amendment's sponsor, Del. Charles W. Carrico Sr., said yesterday that the amendment was needed because Christians in the nation are becoming increasingly oppressed. 

"America was founded on Christian beliefs," said Carrico. "Christianity is the majority faith in this country and yet because the minority has said, 'I'm offended,' we are being told to keep silent."

Lynn said Carrico is wrong.

"Christianity is not muzzled in this country," Lynn continued. "The public square is filled with religious and nonreligious voices. And public school children already have the right to voluntarily pray, read religious literature and join religious clubs. All of this goes on without government endorsement or opposition, and that's how it should be.

"This measure is not needed, and it is an affront to the religious freedoms this country and the state of Virginia have long celebrated," Lynn said. "It is imperative that this proposed amendment be defeated."

The Virginia measure is patterned after a proposed federal constitutional amendment that U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) has spent years trying to shove through Congress. The Istook proposal has not fared well. He has introduced the amendment in several congressional sessions since the late 1990s, but it has always stalled in the House.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.