Virginia's Rev. Jerry Falwell, whose words were cast earlier this this week into the company of naked women, was scolded today from the floor of the Virginia Senate for another type of trespass.
"There are those in our midst today who seek to impose their religious opinions on others, including public officials," said Sen. Joseph Fitzpatrick (D-Norfolk) who, without mentioning Falwell by name, accused Lynchburg's electronic preacher of violating political scriptures of Thomas Jefferson, who is regarded in Virginia as an uncaninzed saint.
Passage of a resolution encouraging public school students to study the Commonwealth's statutes on religious freedom came a day after Falwell lost a court fight to block distribution of the March issue of Penthouse Magazine, which carried an interview with the minister along with its usual photographic displays of nude women. Falwell, head of Moral Majority, had written the Senate's 40 members in an effort to kill the resolution, which he called a "juvenile and uninformed . . . grandstand act" and a "smack in the face" at his organization, a conservative Christian lobbying group.
"Similar thinking in Mr. Jefferson's time moved him to embark on the most bitter fight of his career -- to fight for complete separation of church and state," said Fitzpatrick, a longtime Falwell foe, who engineered today's action approving the resolution.
Those statutes, authored 200 years ago by Jefferson and James Madison, would not appear to be rife with controversy. But because the resolution was introduced by Fitzpatrick, Falwell took it as a personal attack on himself and his Moral Majority, the lobbying organization of conservative Christians which Falwell built into a national movement.
The subject of religion has a long and not always glorious history in Virginia politics. In the 17th Century Puritans and Quakers were expelled from the colony for their religious beliefs and Catholics were forbidden to leave the towns they lived in. In the 18th Century Baptists were attacked by Virginia mobs and Baptist preachers were jailed as "public nuisances."
While debates on religious issues have been mild this session, there have been a few. Last night Del. Elise Heinz (D-Arlington) tried to convince her colleagues in the House that requiring citizens to swear oaths with one hand on a Bible is clearly unconstitutional. Her bill was defeated 44-28.
"I don't doubt that it is unconstitutional," said a delegate from southwest Virginia who voted against the bill.
"But where I come from, it would be political suicide to vote against the Bible."
Some senators privately expressed concern that voting for Fitzpatrick's resolution might cost them votes with Falwell's followers. But the Democratic majority in the Senate apparently felt it had little to lose, since the moral Majority rarely supports Democrats.
"I'm sure in the eyes of the Moral Majority I'm a marked person," said Fitzpatrick, a mainline Roman Catholic who was opposed during his last election by two "born-again" candidates. Fitzpatrick had a letter placed on his desk this week which informed him that his name would placed on the "'82 Hit List." The letter was unsigned except for the notation, "Friends of Dr. Falwell and the Moral Majority."