RICHMOND, Va. Legislation that would open all public property including schools to preaching, praying and proselytizing breezed through a House committee on Feb. 4.
Non-officially sponsored prayer and other religious activities are already protected in public schools.
The bill would also write into the state Constitution a ban on same-sex marriage. It was endorsed 14-4.
With only four dissenting votes, the House Privileges and Elections Committee advanced a proposed change to religious-freedom guarantees rooted in the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom authored by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and reflected in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Both measures appeal to the state's conservative culture in a House election year and are expected to win easy passage in the Republican-dominated House early next week.
Constitutional amendments in Virginia must win House and Senate passage in two sessions with a legislative election in between, then be submitted to voters in a statewide referendum. The earliest vote on the constitutional changes would be November 2006.
The religious-freedom resolution found wide support for remedying what its sponsor, Del. Charles W. Carrico Sr., contends is a growing bias against Christians.
He said other nations upheld their founding religious tenets and compelled respect for them, specifically noting the Muslim culture of Arab countries as an example. Then, he quoted Patrick Henry in appealing for greater leeway for Christianity.
"I want to quote this phrase [Henry] was a five-term governor of Virginia (who) once said, 'It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was not founded by religionists but by Christians,'" Carrico said.
He also recalled that before he retired as a Virginia state trooper, he was rebuked for recounting the Old Testament story of David vs. Goliath in an address to high school students.
Opponents warned that the measure not only would violate the U.S. Constitution, but also open any public forum to radical, even violent exhortations in the name of religion.
Del. David Albo, R-Fairfax County, said Carrico's resolution could give someone who advocates "a legitimate jihad to wipe out all Christians on the face of the Earth" the same right to speak to schoolchildren as someone leading a Christian devotional.
What, Carrico asked Albo, prevents violent speech from religious extremists now?
"I guess my quick response would be one of the reasons why you're not allowed to give your David-and-Goliath speech to kids is because we don't want the jihad speech to be given to kids," Albo replied.
Anna Avital, a Jewish mother of four Richmond public school students, said she shared frustration with Christians that public schools and popular culture were distancing themselves from the mention of Christmas or Hanukkah during the holiday season. But Carrico's resolution, she said, goes too far.
"I'm made to feel unwelcome. I don't feel Christianity is being shoved down my throat. I'm made to feel that other religions are unwelcome, and that's not what this country is about," said Avital, an executive with the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond.
Aimee Perron Seibert, legislative director for the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said backers of Carrico's measure scared up support for such legislation by wrongly implying that voluntary religious expression was banned.
"Certainly children can wear 'What Would Jesus Do?' bracelets or 'What Would Jesus Do?' T-shirts, and we at the ACLU would protect their right to do that," Seibert said.
Charles C. Haynes, First Amendment Center senior scholar, noted in a 2002 commentary that under current law, students already have the right to pray in public schools "alone or in groups, as long as they don’t disrupt the school or interfere with the rights of others."
"In public schools across the nation, students are praying around the flagpole before school, forming religious clubs in high schools, sharing their faith with classmates, giving out religious literature in school (subject to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions), giving their religious views in class assignments, and gathering to pray between classes and at mealtime," Haynes wrote.
Voters in 11 states last fall ratified same-sex wedlock bans to their constitutions in a backlash against gay marriage being legalized in Massachusetts.
Conservative lawmakers and supporters of the Virginia amendment are evoking the same warnings that "defense of marriage" amendment backers elsewhere used: that other states could be forced to honor same-sex marriages established in Massachusetts.
"It is regrettable that our culture has reached a point where it is even necessary to define society's most fundamental institution in our Constitution," Victoria Cobb, executive director of the Family Foundation, said in praising the overwhelming vote for the marriage bill.
Dyana Mason, executive director of Equality Virginia, the state's largest gay-and-lesbian rights advocacy organization, said Virginia seemed swept up in anti-gay sentiment.
(See this link to track H.J. 528 and H.J. 537 online.)