By Robert Dilday
An amendment to the Virginia constitution aimed at permitting prayer in public schools and government meetings should be rejected by the state’s General Assembly, according to Virginia’s oldest Baptist network of churches.
A resolution adopted during the annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia called the amendment “unworthy of the support of the citizens of Virginia.”
“Virginia Baptists collectively have traditionally and consistently taken the position that religious expression coming from or endorsed by government is inconsistent with the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience,” notes the resolution presented by the BGAV’s religious liberty committee. “Sectarian legislative prayers have the effect of utilizing civil government as a mechanism for advancing faith, and Virginia Baptists have historically held that individuals and not the government should advance faith.”
Sponsors of Senate Joint Resolution 287 said they want to amend the state constitution to protect the rights of individuals and public bodies to pray on public property and public schools and protect students from religious discrimination.
The amendment cleared one Senate committee last January but in February was returned to another committee by its lead sponsor before it could be brought to a vote by the full Senate, which is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
“I believe that we need to do some more work so that we’ll bring it back next year and make sure that it is stronger,” Sen. Bill Stanley, a Republican, said on the floor of the Senate at the time.
For a constitutional amendment to be approved, it must pass the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions separated by an election, and then be adopted by voters in a referendum.
SJR 287 would amend the Virginia Bill of Rights, a document drafted by George Mason, adopted by the Virginia legislature in 1776, and later incorporated into the state constitution. Thomas Jefferson is believed to have drawn on language in the Bill of Rights when he drafted the nation’s Declaration of Independence.
Section 16 of the Bill of Rights — to which the amendment would be added — guarantees that no one “shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.”
The proposed amendment instructs the state to “not coerce any person to participate in any prayer or other religious activity, but shall ensure that any person shall have the right to pray individually or corporately in a private or public setting” and allows individuals to “offer invocations or other prayers at meetings or sessions of the General Assembly or governing bodies.”
The BGAV’s resolution — adopted on a voice vote with some opposition — notes that Section 16 “has since its inception fully protected the religious freedom of the citizens of Virginia” but warned that the amendment would “dwarf the present Section 16 and detract from its iconic status.”
Stephen Aycock, who chairs the religious liberty committee, told participants at the annual meeting SJR 287 would have “the effect of entangling faith and government.”
“This does not need to be adopted,” said Aycock, director of missions for the Fredericksburg Area Baptist Association. “We need to stand with our forebears as champions of religious liberty.”
The amendment may be trumped by the U.S. Supreme Court if it upholds a lower court ruling that a New York town violated the Constitution with its policy of opening public meetings with mostly Christian prayers. The high court heard oral arguments Nov. 6 in Town of Greece v. Galloway and its decision, expected next June, could be one of the most significant church-state decisions in 30 years. It would affect the nature of invocations in municipal meetings nationwide.