Civil liberties group argues that constitutional amendment is unnecessary and that guidelines or legal advisories on religious rights will suffice
The ACLU of Virginia is asking the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee to vote down a proposed amendment to the Virginia Constitution that may give government officials leeway to allow the imposition of religion on public school students. The Senate committee is scheduled to meet tomorrow afternoon to vote on the amendment. The House of Delegates has already given its approval to the measure.
Introduced by Delegate Charles W. Carrico, HJ 537 amends Article I, Section 16 of the Virginia Constitution, which is based on Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom. The bill asserts a categorical right to practice religion on “public property, including public schools.” Carrico and other supporters of the bill claim that is it needed because some government officials are suppressing religion in public places
In a memo being distributed today, the ACLU of Virginia argues that religion is alive, well, and freely practiced in Virginia, making the amendment unnecessary; that the bill may encourage government officials to violate separation of church and state by allowing constitutionally impermissible prayers in public schools and government buildings; and, that guidelines or legal advisories--not a constitutional amendment --are the proper way to keep government officials from infringing on religious liberty.
“You only need to turn on the radio or television or listen to public officials give speeches to know that suppression of religious expression is not a problem in our society,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. “Thanks to the Virginia Constitution and its influence on the U.S Constitution, we live in the most religiously free nation in history.”
“We are concerned, however, that the assertion of a categorical right to practice religions in public places will be interpreted to mean that all religious expression in places like public schools is permissible,” added Willis. “The Supreme Court has spent 50 years defining the delicate balance between a student’s right to pray and the illegal imposition of religion on students in the public school setting. This amendment, rather than clarifying the school prayer issue only muddies the waters.”
“If some public officials do not fully understand the interplay between religious expression and separation of church and state,” added Willis, “then let’s educate them. That would do a lot more to solve the problem than adding broad, unexplained language to the Virginia Constitution.”
The ACLU of Virginia's letter is available at http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/20050214-Relgious-Freedom-Amendment.pdf
Contact: Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022