The Virginia Senate's majority leader was grumbling. "It's frightening, really," said the powerful Hunter B. Andrews during a break on the floor of the chamber. "These schools take the position that God teaches everything, even mathematics.
Andrews had just emerged from a Senate showdown in which fundamentalist religious groups came within five votes of killing a measure increasing state control of private and church-run colleges and universities.
A bill that probably would have sailed through the Senate just a few years ago, it passed today by a 24 to 15 margin and was sent to the House in a narrow escape from increasingly potent religious lobbyists who worked hard for its defeat.
Some senators later said the measure, which would let the state set academic standards for the degrees and diplomas such schools award, drew the most vigorous lobbying on an education issue in years.
Today's vote was the latest example of a nationwide phenomenon -- the entry of conservative church groups into everyday politics as they seek to influence issues from abortion funding to the Equal Rights Amendment.
It was also the latest clash between Virginia lawmakers who habitually bring their constituents' religious convictions onto the floor of the assembly and those who hold fast to what they say is the Jeffersonian tradition separating church and state.
In recent weeks, lawmakers have introduced bills and resolutions that would ask Congress to bring back voluntary school prayer, sanction a trip to Washington by "born-again Americans" on behalf of a "Body of Christ," movement and restrict or at least study the operations of an "in vitro" fertilization clinic in Norfolk.
Various religious groups also have lobbied heavily in Richmond to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment and last year were instrumental in working out a compromise bill that exempted church-run day-care centers from many state health and safety requirements.
"The First Amendment prevents government from interfering with churches, but it doesn't stop churches from influencing government," Beverly Campbell, heading a Mormon coalition against the ERA, told a news conference recently.
Today's bill, sponsored by Andrews and Sens. Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond), J. Harry Michael (D-Charlottesville) and Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax), would require the State Council of Higher Education to approve the confering of degrees or certificates awarded by some 34 private and religious institutions in Virginia.
Andrews said the legislation was intended to "adequately protect the students" who attend such schools by insuring that academic standards are maintained. He said the measure did not infringe on First Amendment rights because it makes a distinction between the Bible classes and the academic courses offered at the schools.
During floor debate on the bill, Andrews tried to reassure the opponents by telling them that the "Christian schools" were divided on the measure.
"Brother Pat's university is in favor of it," he said. "The gentleman from Lynchburg is not."
The references weer to evangelist Pat Robertson of the Virginia Beach based Christian Broadcasting Network and to Dr. Jerry Falwell of Lynchburg, the fundamentalist Bapist preacher whose Liberty Baptist College and Sunday sermons draw national attention.
Falwell, in particular, has used his Moral Majority organization to exert tremendous influence at the polls and in legislation.
"Falwell called me himself to get me to vote on the day-care exemption bill last year," recalled Sen. Elliot S. Schewel, who acknowledges that being from the preacher's home town "means that I hear from a lot of his people on some issues."
Though Schewel does not always do Falwell's bidding, he marvels at the way "every statewide candidate goes and sits at his feet on Sunday" during an election. He recalled making such an appearance himself and then turning up on television in New York when the service was broadcast there.
The biggest pressure from Falwell's and other fundamentalist groups has been over the ERA, the legislators said.
State Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) remembers a Fairfax visitor who came to his office two years ago, when Saslaw was in the House of Delegates, to get the ERA proponent to change his mind.
"He told me that if I didn't change my position that the people from his church would work against me," Saslaw recalled. "The way he put it was that a lot of his people lived in my area and would be highly involved in my political future."
The Fairfax senator said he was lobbied two or three times this year in an unsuccessful effort to get him to vote against Andrews' bill.
"They say all these courses are based on God, but I think (water) is (water) no matter where it's taught," Saslaw argued. "These schools operate within our borders, they grant degrees and they advertise for students, so they ought to be regulated by the same standards."
Not all the religious lobbying is confined to fundamentalist denominations. The Roman Catholic Church and some of the Catholic members of the assembly have long fought against abortion rights and this year joined in an effort to curb or study the out-of-womb fertilization program just authorized at Norfolk's so-called "test tube" baby clinic.
The Senate Rules Committee today agreed to appoint a subcommittee to study the clinic's operations and report back next year on whether legislation regulating it is needed.
"There's a moral issue involved," argued State Sen. William A. Truban (R-Shenandoah) when it looked as if the committee might reject such a study. "We're not supposed to be able to regulate morality, but we ought to be able to look at it."
On Thursday, State Sen. Frank W. Nolen (D-Augusta) had tried unsuccessfully to block what he said were "foolish" sex change operations being performed at the University of Virginia Medical College. Today he fought against Andrews' bill, complaining the state was "meddling" in religious affairs.
The biggest potential church-state flap fizzled earlier this session after Sen. A. Joe Canada Jr. (R-Virginia Beach) and 13 other legislators sponsored the so-called "Body of Christ" resolution. The measure backfired, especially after the few Jewish members in the assembly got a look at it.
"I couldn't believe some of the people who signed on that thing," said Schewel. He said the eagerness to support the resolution which called on born-again Americans to join "a gathering of Christians" in Washington this spring "to proclaim this country one nation under God" -- "showed a certain lack of sensitivity."
Amazed at the controversy the resoltion caused, Canada had it revised to such an extent that, as one detractor joked, "it just says you can go to Washington. It doesn't say for what."
Canada, complaining that religious groups "spend more time fighting among themselves" than they spend promoting "the biblical and constitutional teachings that made our country great," said today he supports the aims of many fundamentalist groups.
"Everybody should have the opportunity to have their views expressed," he said. "I weigh each issue." He voted against Andrews' bill after deciding "it went too far."
Concerned over the growing influence of what has been called "the electronic church," legislators say they also face election opposition from a new crop of born-again Christians.
"In my campaign, two of the candidates were born-again Christians, but they lost," said State Sen. Joseph T. Fitzpatrick (D-Norfolk).
At a recent ERA hearing, Fitzpatrick took on Falwell when he came to testify against the amendment banning sex discrimination against women. He was still smarting from a religious rally Falwell held in Richmond several months ago at which he reportedly slighted other religions.
"He made unking remarks about persons of the Jewish faith and he said Catholics were incomplete Christians," Fitzpatrick said. "He later apologized for his Jewish remarks, but he never apologized to the Catholics." a