RICHMOND, Feb. 21 -- A Senate committee spent two hours Monday debating what Virginia's founders intended when they wrote about religious freedom two centuries ago before soundly rejecting a proposal to expand on their words.
The Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted 10 to 5 to reject a proposed constitutional amendment that would have explicitly recognized the right to pray on public property, including schools.
Del. Charles W. Carrico Sr. (R-Grayson) takes questions after his proposed religious freedom amendment was killed. He vowed to keep fighting.
(Bob Brown -- Richmond Times-dispatch Via AP)
The amendment to Article I, Section 16, would have inserted a paragraph amid wording on religious liberty composed by founding fathers Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Mason and unchanged since 1786.
Del. Charles W. Carrico Sr. (R-Grayson), who authored the proposed amendment, said it would strengthen and preserve the spirit of the founders' words. New language was needed, he said, to counter court decisions that have persecuted Christians and expelled expressions of faith from the public square.
"Our country was built upon the Christian principles of the Bible," he told the committee. "Today our Constitution, in my opinion, has to be strengthened to protect those rights of all Christians around the nation."
Senators opposed to the amendment said the Constitution protects the right to pray individually in schools and other government buildings, making the amendment unnecessary. Section 16 says in part that "all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of religion."
Others said they feared the amendment could lead to trampling upon the rights of minority religions.
"Having survived 219 years of honored Virginia tradition, can we really improve on the language of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison?" asked Sen. John S. Edwards (D-Roanoke).
"I believe we can," Carrico responded. His House Joint Resolution 537 would have added that the "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."
Carrico and his supporters agreed that the amendment would not change much in practice. They said it would not allow for organized prayer in schools. Instead, they argued that it would offer "black and white" language that would pierce confusion about what is allowed on public property, particularly on school grounds.
"We need to have a constitutional provision that's for the people, for all the people, including the local government officials that frankly need a civics lesson," said Michael P. Farris, a constitutional scholar who ran for lieutenant governor in 1993. Farris, president of Purcellville's Patrick Henry College, often represents students who sue their school districts charging their religious freedoms have been infringed.
The amendment was approved by the House of Delegates this month by a vote of 69 to 27.
Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) told Carrico that the legislature could spend "every hour of every day" trying to cement laws in the Constitution. "I really think we've got to exercise some intellectual discipline when it comes to this," he said.
Rather than avoiding confusion about religion and schools, Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said, the courts would be inundated with suits from those hoping to use the new language to return prayer to classrooms.
"We will unleash an avalanche of lawsuits," he said.
Constitutional amendments require the approval of two successive general assemblies before they are put to a statewide referendum. Monday's vote, therefore, delays the possible adoption of the amendment by two years. Carrico pledged, however, that he would not give up on the idea.
Four Republicans joined the committee's six Democrats in opposing the amendment. After the vote, Farris, who is active in the Republican Party, singled them out for criticism. He said the senators could find that the vote comes up in GOP primary challenges.
"This vote is fair game," he said. "People who feel that the time is right for this protection have the right to elect officials who share that view."