The House of Delegates on Tuesday passed a resolution to amend the Virginia Constitution in a manner that could encourage unconstitutional prayers in public schools. The vote was 66-33 to send HJ 593 to the Senate.
Although the resolution does not contain plainly unconstitutional language, patron Del. Charles W. Carrico has made it clear he intends for the amendment to permit religious practices in public schools that the U.S. Supreme Court prohibits.
Carrico has testified on at least two occasions that his amendment would have protected the right of Gate City High School students to continue offering prayers over the public address at football games in the fall of 2009. In that incident, Gate City school officials voluntarily agreed to discontinue the prayers after the ACLU of Virginia made them aware of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, a 2000 decision striking down prayers over public address systems at high school football games.
HJ 593 would add the following to the Virginia Constitution:
To secure further the people’s right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience, neither the Commonwealth nor its political subdivisions shall establish any official religion, but 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; however, the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions, including public school divisions, shall not compose school prayers, nor require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity.
“The real problem with the proposed amendment is what it doesn’t say,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. “While it correctly states that we do not lose our right to pray when we enter a public school and that school officials may not require students to participate in religious exercises, it leaves to the imagination whether prayers over a school’s public address system, at a high school graduations, or offered by teachers in the classroom are impermissible.”
“The reason the Supreme Court has issued so many decisions on prayer in public schools is that the subject is delicate and requires a nuanced understanding of the true meaning of religious liberty,” Willis said. “The high court’s goal has always been to protect the right of students and others to embrace and express their own religions beliefs, while making certain there is no hint of religious coercion.”
“At best, Del. Carrico has inaccurately and misleadingly compressed 60 years and hundreds of pages of Supreme Court decisions into a single sentence,” Willis said. “At worst, he is trying to rewrite the law to allow school officials to impose their religions views on the students in their care. Neither is acceptable, and we hope the Senate sees it that way.”
Edited by Chris Graham. Chris can be reached at [email protected].