Vote delays prayer change

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 8, 2005

Monty Kahlon

Capital News Service

During this year’s legislative session, Del. Charles Carrico Sr., R-Independent, appeared to have a sure winner when the House voted 69-27 for his proposed constitutional amendment explicitly allowing people to pray in schools and other public buildings.

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However, on Feb. 21, it took only 10 senators in a committee to reject the measure. Now, it will take several years before it is possible to change the Virginia Constitution this way.

&uot;Our country is built upon the Christian principles of the Bible; our laws are formed after those biblical, moral principles,&uot; Carrico told the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, where House Joint Resolution 537 met its downfall.

The resolution would have added 80 words to Section 16 of Article I of the Constitution of Virginia.

That article already says that the commonwealth shall not establish a religion but that &uot;all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.&uot;

HJR 537 would have added this passage:

&uot;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.&uot;

Carrico said the amendment was aimed at protecting the rights of citizens who want to practice their religion in public places. He said Christians are increasingly under pressure by others who do not want them to express their faith publicly.

A few members of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee spoke in favor of Carrico’s proposal.

&uot;When Thomas Jefferson was the president of the United States, he even went as far as to require Bible reading in Washington, D.C., public schools. This doesn’t even come anything close to that,&uot; said Sen. Nick Rerras, R-Norfolk.

But Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston, took a different view.

&uot;I think most of us think the purpose of the Bill of Rights and our constitutional rights is to protect the rights of the minority and the individual-not the majority. The majority rarely needs protecting,&uot; Howell said.

In the end, the committee voted 5-10 against Carrico’s proposed constitutional amendment.

The committee members who supported the amendment were: Sens. Harry B. Blevins, R-Chesapeake; Ken Cuccinelli, R-Centreville; Mark D. Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg; Rerras; and William Roscoe Reynolds, D-Martinsville.

The committee members who opposed the amendment were: Sens. John S. Edwards, D-Roanoke; Howell; Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth; Henry L. Marsh III, D-Richmond; Bill Mims-Leesburg; Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-Williamsburg; Linda T. Puller, D-Mount Vernon; Frederick M. Quayle, R-Chesapeake; Richard L. Saslaw, D-Springfield; and Kenneth W. Stolle, R-Virginia Beach.

Because the proposed amendment failed, it will be a while before any such language is added to the Constitution.

In Virginia, such proposals must pass two General Assembly sessions separated by a House election. (House elections are held in even-numbered years.) Then the amendment must be approved by Virginia voters.

Charles Smith, who had asked Carrico to submit the proposal, said he was disappointed with the Senate committee’s action.

&uot;A few of our senators are saying, ’69 delegates are wrong.’ That’s what they are really saying,&uot; he said after the committee’s vote.

Smith, who lives in Hanover County, said it is important for students to pray in school because prayer will lead to a special bond.

&uot;That would really cut down on the violence and all the problems that we are having in our schools today.&uot;

Before Carrico came along, Smith had written letters to all Virginia delegates, asking them to propose such a constitutional amendment in the Legislature.

What prompted Smith to go on such a crusade?

&uot;One night when I was sleeping, God woke me up and told me that he had something for me to do.&uot;