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Virginia House Threatens Church-State Separation

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By Sandhya Bathija

If Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were around today, they would be extremely disappointed in their home state of Virginia.

The Virginia House of Delegates voted yesterday to approve two constitutional amendments that threaten church-state separation: one that promotes prayer in public places, including public schools, and another that permits taxpayer money to fund the religious training and theological education of certain students.

Both of these resolutions, which will move to the Virginia Senate, are contradictory to Jefferson and Madison’s vision for Virginia and the United States. Jefferson and Madison were strong supporters of religious freedom and keeping church and state separate.

Yet certain legislators are bent on stomping out Jefferson and Madison’s legacy, as well as the Virginia and federal constitutions.

Del. Bill Carrico (R-Grayson County) sponsored HJR 593, which seeks to add a paragraph to the religious freedom section of the Virginia constitution 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 decided to sponsor the resolution after a high school in his district received a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union reminding the public school 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 on the House floor.

Americans United wrote to 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 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 HJR 614, an amendment to the state constitution that would allow taxes 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.

Madison was in extreme opposition to religion taxes, and in the Remonstrance, he 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?”

The Remonstrance helped lead the Virginia General Assembly to oppose the measure, and instead, pass Thomas Jefferson’s Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. The 1786 Act declared that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever,” which are the very words found in Article I, Section 16 of today’s Virginia Constitution.

Still, HJR 614 – which undermines Madison’s and Jefferson’s work – passed the House yesterday with a 62-32 vote.

Virginia has always afforded its citizens the strong guarantees of religious freedom, and it’s sad that so many legislators want to do away with that legacy.

Despite their efforts, there is a good chance that day won’t ever come. Both resolutions now go to the Senate, where in the past, similar measures have failed.

If the measures do succeed in the Senate, it’s still possible to keep them from becoming part of the state constitution. In Virginia, constitutional amendments must pass in both the House and Senate in two different years separated by a legislative election, and then be approved by voters in a statewide election.

Since we can’t necessarily count on the Virginia General Assembly, perhaps we can count on Virginia’s citizens to do the right thing and make Jefferson and Madison proud. As a registered Virginia voter, I know I plan to.


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