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Va. Proposal Would Make Prayer a Right

Lawmaker Seeks to Amend Wording Dating to Mason

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page B01

RICHMOND -- Del. Charles W. Carrico Sr. is convinced that judges and school principals have been misinterpreting the words of George Mason, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson concerning religious freedom.

So he has written an extra paragraph to help, and he hopes it eventually will become part of the Virginia Constitution.

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Carrico, a Republican from Grayson County in southwestern Virginia, said he would be "humbled" if the General Assembly and voters choose to insert his words among those written by the heroes of the country's founding. But he said that much has happened since the early years of the nation and that the founders' words must be amended to protect the spirit of their ideals.

"We were dealing with a young nation, a new nation. Over a period of years, things have changed," he said.

Carrico's proposed amendment would recognize explicitly a right to pray in public places, including schools.

Last week, the House of Delegates approved it 69 to 27.

"No words are entirely golden or sacrosanct. We've been steadily adapting the constitution over the years," said Del. Joe T. May (R-Loudoun), who voted for the amendment.

Another supporter is Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William). "There is now a poisoned environment for religious expression that the founders never, never desired," said Lingamfelter, who voted for the proposal.

House Joint Resolution 537 is now in the Senate, where it is scheduled to be reviewed Monday by the Courts of Justice Committee. Proponents say they are not optimistic about the measure's chances in committee but promise to fight for its adoption.

"Our government has become anti-religion, and this is an attempt to rebuild institutional and constitutional respect by government for religion. Not for a particular religion, but religion in general," said Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-Fairfax), who sits on the courts committee.

Opponents fear that the amendment could be used to return school-sanctioned prayer to classroom life. They say an individual's right to pray on public property is already protected, and the language of the founders should be considered sacred.

"I think it's the height of arrogance and hubris to think we could improve on the words of Thomas Jefferson," said Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax). "There's no need to change it. It protects all our liberties, and it has stood the test of time."

To become part of the constitution, the proposal would have to be passed by the General Assembly this year and again during the next session. If it passed, it then would be put to a statewide referendum in November 2006.

Carrico, a retired state trooper, said his inspiration was a 1998 incident in which parents complained that he had used a biblical reference during a school talk encouraging children to resist drugs and alcohol. While in uniform, Carrico said, he held up a Bible and told students that, like David, they would have to fight the Goliath of peer pressure in their lives.

"I think the American people and the courts have been saying that the wall in the separation of church and state has gone too far, and it's suppressed -- I'd even say oppressed -- the Christian faith and silenced it," he said.

Carrico said his amendment would bar the state from composing school prayer or requiring people to join in religious activities.

Virginia's current constitution, which dates to 1971, incorporates the language of several foundational documents about religious freedom, said University of Virginia professor A.E. Dick Howard, the executive director of the commission that wrote the 1971 document.

The constitution states that people have the right to the "free exercise of religion," a sentence that was written mostly by George Mason and adopted in 1776. It goes on to guarantee that the General Assembly will not give any privilege or advantage to any one sect, that "no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship." That language, written by Thomas Jefferson, was adopted by the General Assembly in 1786.

Jefferson was so proud of his Statute for Religious Freedom that he asked that it be one of the three accomplishments mentioned on his tombstone at Monticello, along with the crafting of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia.

Carrico's proposed amendment reiterates that the state could not "establish any official religion" but says that "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."

Howard said he believed that Jefferson worked the language very carefully and would not necessarily have approved of the changes Carrico has proposed. "There's no doubt that Jefferson intended a broad reading of the Virginia statute. He thought government and religion occupied separate spheres and one ought not to interfere with the other," Howard said.


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