ACLU argued that constitutional amendment on religious expression in public places (including public schools) was unnecessary and that guidelines or legal advisories on religious rights would sufficeThe Senate Courts of Justice Committee this morning voted down a constitutional amendment that might have allowed government officials impose religion on public school students and illegally entangle the state in religious exercises. The vote was 10-5.
Earlier in the legislative session the House of Delegates overwhelmingly approved HJ 537, but when the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee referred the controversial measure to the Court of Justice Committee last week, most observers felt it was doomed.
Introduced by Delegate Charles W. Carrico, HJ 537 proposed to amend Article I, Section 16 of the Virginia Constitution, which is based on Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom. The bill asserts a categorical right to practice religion on “public property, including public schools.” Carrico and other supporters of the bill claimed that was it needed because some government officials are suppressing religion in public places
In a memo, the ACLU of Virginia argued that religion is alive, well, and freely practiced in Virginia, making the amendment unnecessary; that it would encourage government officials to violate separation of church and state by allowing constitutionally impermissible prayers in public schools and government buildings; and, that guidelines or legal advisories--not a constitutional amendment --were the proper way to keep government officials from infringing on religious liberty.
“We were concerned that the assertion of a categorical right to practice religion in public places would be interpreted to mean that all religious expression in places like public schools is permissible,” added Willis. “The Supreme Court has spent 50 years defining the delicate balance between a student’s right to pray and the illegal imposition of religion on students in the public school setting. This amendment, rather than clarifying the school prayer issue, would only have muddied the waters.”
“If some public officials do not understand the interplay between religious expression and separation of church and state,” added Willis, “then the state ought to educate them. That would do a lot more to solve the problem than adding nebulous language to the Virginia Constitution.”
The full text of the ACLU of Virginia's memo is found at http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/20050221-Relgious-Free-Amend-Killed.pdf
Contacts: Kent Willis, Executive Director Aimee Perron Seibert, Legislative Director 804-644-8022