RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — House Republicans advanced two proposed state constitutional amendments Tuesday that benefit religion, but critics say they breach the wall between government and clergy.
On a 61-33 vote, Del. Bill Carrico's bill to grant protections to prayers made in public forums such as classrooms and school athletic events passed.
Carrico, R-Grayson, said the measure affirms the principle that voluntary prayer, even in public forums, is constitutionally protected.
A letter from the American Civil Liberties Union to school officials in Gate City objecting to a Christian prayer before a September football game prompted the measure, Carrico said.
Under questioning by House Democratic Leader Ward L. Armstrong, Carrico said prayers freely offered in public places are protected by First Amendment.
"There's an impression given across this country that because you're on public property, that you are not entitled to express your religious belief and the prayer that you hold sacred in your own heart," Carrico said. "It just strengthens that language to say that you have the right to do it."
He said his legislation would not protect prayers led by teachers or school officials.
Two Jewish delegates, Adam Ebbin and David Englin, both D-Alexandria, said it imposes Christianity on minority faiths.
"It gives the religious majority the opportunity to promote its own sectarian beliefs," said Ebbin.
Englin said supporters don't know the burden of being a religious minority, noting that on most days, the House opens with a prayer to Jesus.
"Another important part of this amendment isn't about adults, it's about children. It's about saying it's OK if my Jewish son has to sit there in class or at an assembly or at a school sporting event, choosing between the pressure of silent exclusion or the pressured acquiescence from teachers or classmates in the face of prayer to somebody else's faith," he said.
A bill to allow the state to help pay for private religious or theological education for National Guard chaplains passed on a 62-32 vote.
The bill's sponsor, Thomas Greason, R-Loudoun, said he offered the measure after learning that the National Guard was running short of chaplains. He said it makes no sense that the state pays for the services of military chaplains, yet won't provide financial aid at private colleges that offer divinity degrees or other advanced training in different faiths.
Both bills face a more critical reception in the Senate, where similar measures routinely die.
Were they to survive, the earliest either could be amended to the constitution would be November 2012. In Virginia, constitutional amendments must win House and Senate passage in two different years separated by a legislative election, then be approved by voters in a statewide election.
Track HJ593 (Carrico) and HJ614 (Greason): http://leg1.state.va.us/111/lis.htmTags: