The General Assembly today approved a state constitutional amendment that would guarantee the right of Virginians to hunt and fish, and it also dealt a severe blow to a bill that would require public schools to open with a moment of silence each day.
The state's voters will be asked to approve the amendment, passed 24 to 16 today by the Senate, despite opposition from most lawmakers from the Washington suburbs, who contend it could undermine gun restrictions already in force throughout the region.
A House committee rewrote the bill that would require schoolchildren to observe a minute of silence, a measure that just a few weeks ago seemed headed for easy approval. The House typically is friendlier to socially conservative measures than the Senate, which passed the bill Feb. 1. The moment of silence also has support from Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R).
But news last month that the bill, sponsored by Sen. Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax), had passed the Senate led to a powerful backlash by opponents, who dominated a two-hour hearing this morning in which they raised constitutional questions and the possibility that schools might face lawsuits for complying with the measure.
"The opposition was more organized on the House side," said Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax), co-chairman of the House Education Committee.
Dillard's committee chose to gut the bill rather than reject it outright, leaving open the possibility that a floor fight could revive the bill's original intentions before the session ends next week. The version that passed today merely calls on the attorney general to defend school boards that choose to hold moments of silence allowed under existing law.
Barry expressed frustration over the action. "You've got a statewide body who . . . didn't have the fortitude to take a state position," he said. "What we'll end up with is a hodgepodge around the Commonwealth of Virginia."
The proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to hunt and fish now goes to the general election ballot in November, when voters will be asked whether the constitution should be amended to say, "The people have a right to hunt, fish and harvest game, subject to such regulations and restrictions as the General Assembly may prescribe by general law."
"It may not be important to some folks, but to some of us, it's very important," said Del. Victor A. Thomas (D-Roanoke), a leading backer of the bill. "We'll see what happens in November."
The measure survived days of intense debate, including proposals by opponents that other pastimes such as golfing and shopping should be protected as well.
But today Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun) raised a more serious objection, arguing that local rules in towns and cities prohibiting hunting within their borders would be undermined by the constitutional amendment.
"Do you really want hunting in your incorporated cities and towns?" Mims said on the Senate floor. "That's what it boils down to."
Del. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), the bill's sponsor, said that Mims's objection might have some legal merit.
In Manassas, the ordinance most likely to be affected would be one that bans everyone--except police officers--from discharging weapons within the city limits, police Capt. Tim Belcher said.
"Presumably, you could hunt in your own back yard," Belcher said. "But you couldn't go into a city park and hunt because you don't own the land and you don't have permission" to hunt there, which is required by state law.
But Ignacio Pessoa, Alexandria's acting city attorney, said he believes the concerns are overblown.
"It has very little impact on the city," he said. "There are several sources of legal authority that local governments have to regulate hunting and firearms."
Fairfax County officials said they do not believe the law would affect counties, because their gun regulations are usually authorized specifically by the General Assembly.
Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) also warned that the constitutional amendment could be used to get around protective orders that prohibit people who have committed domestic violence or stalking from purchasing or carrying guns. Howell believes that the amendment could allow the subject of a protective order to go to a judge and demand to be allowed to get a gun in order to hunt.
"It's a very scary situation, and it demonstrates that our priorities are out of whack," Howell said.
Also today, the House of Delegates approved by a 62 to 34 vote a new compromise transportation package that would spend $2.5 billion on projects over the next six years, combining elements favored by Gilmore and those approved in an earlier House action.
The resulting bill establishes two permanent funding sources for transportation, something long sought by lawmakers from Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. The two sources, the tax on auto insurance premiums and 30 percent of the state's share of the national tobacco settlement, would provide at least $220 million a year for transportation.
Final decisions on transportation aren't likely to come until the final days of the session next week when House and Senate budget negotiators approve a compromise, and even then, Gilmore wields a veto pen if some element is objectionable to him.
Staff writer Brooke A. Masters contributed to this report.