|Proposed amendment would protect prayer in schools, government buildings|
Sen. Bill Stanley
Friday, January 11, 2013
By K.A. WAGONER - Staff Writer
State Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Glade Hill) has proposed an amendment to the Virginia Constitution to clarify that the right to worship includes prayer in public settings, including government property and public schools.
"We have to return prayer to the public forum," Stanley said. "It's long overdue."
"It's time we (Virginia) take a stand and qualify in our Constitution that religious liberty is one of the most sacred of all our rights," he added. "We have to protect the religious liberty intended by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution."
The proposed amendment (SJ287) would add language to the freedom of religion provision that "the Commonwealth shall not coerce any person to participate in any prayer or religious activity, but shall ensure that any person shall have the right to pray individually or corporately in a private or public setting so long as such prayer does not result in disturbance of the peace or disruption of a public meeting or assembly."
The amendment specifies that "citizens as well as elected officials and employees of the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions shall have the right to pray on government premises and public property so long as such prayers abide within the same parameters placed upon any free speech under similar circumstances."
"I have been watching the assault on people's right to pray where they see fit," Stanley said, "and the assault on religion by the government in order to remove any higher authority than itself from the public view."
Stanley is counsel for Pittsylvania County in a lawsuit filed in 2011 by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) to stop the board of supervisors from opening meetings with a Christian prayer.
The ACLU claims that the practice violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
"The ACLU and other secular groups are attacking small communities, intimidating and threatening them with lawsuits to prevent the people from exercising their right to express their faith," Stanley said. "They are trying to overrule the will of many with the will of one. This silliness has to stop."
Stanley said the separation of church and state has been misconstrued by the courts and government to remove God from the public forum.
"That is part of the moral decay in this country," he said.
The Franklin County Board of Supervisors was also asked to stop saying a Christian prayer before opening their meetings. Dave Gresham of Hardy made the request at a board meeting in April 2012. He said the prayer endorses a particular religion.
Stanley's proposed amendment also specifies that students "may express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work."
And "that no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his religious beliefs."
The amendment also stipulates that public school students have the right to religious expression without interference as long as the expression is voluntary and fits within the boundaries of free speech.
Lastly, the proposed amendment would require public schools to display the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution.
In order to amend the Constitution of Virginia, a resolution must be passed in two consecutive years (with an election in between) by the Virginia General Assembly. Then the proposed amendment can be added to the ballot for a vote by the citizens of Virginia.