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House passes bill permitting prayers in schools

The House of Delegates on Wednesday passed a resolution to amend the Virginia Constitution in a manner that could encourage unconstitutional prayers in public schools.

Del. James E. Edmunds II is co-patron of the legislation that passed 66 to 33 sending HJ 593 to the Senate where the bill was referred to the Committee on Privileges and Elections.

In presenting the bill during this General Assembly Session, Patron Delegate Charles W. Carrico made it clear he intends for the amendment to permit religious practices in public schools, and Del. Edmunds echoed his support of the legislation in a recent newsletter.

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:

“Amends current free exercise of religion provisions of the Virginia Constitution to permit prayer and the recognition of religious beliefs, heritage, and traditions on public property, including public schools in order to secure further the people’s right to acknowledge God. The amendment also prohibits (i) the composing of school prayers by the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions, and (ii) requiring persons to join in prayer or other religious activity. The current free exercise of religion provisions of the Virginia Constitution mirror those in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and provide for the free exercise of religion and prohibit compelling persons to participate in religious activity.”

ACLU Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis said, “The real problem with the proposed amendment is what it doesn’t say. 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,” added Willis