- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 7, 2002

RICHMOND Virginia lawmakers have traditionally been receptive to legislation blurring the separation between church and state, and this year, measures with religious overtones including a proposal to allow school boards to post the Ten Commandments in public schools are sailing through the House of Delegates.
"We have strayed away from the values that this country was founded on," said Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter, Prince William Republican. "There is just this sense that we have gone too far."
Mr. Lingamfelter is sponsoring the Ten Commandments proposal, just one of several religion-themed pieces of legislation that have come to be known as the "God bills."
Under his proposal, school boards would be allowed to post the Bible's Ten Commandments along with quotes from other historical texts like the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution in public schools.
"This is not about religion," he said of his bill. "It's about values."
The bill comes up for debate on the floor of the House today. But if the overwhelming passage of several bills that call for the posting of "In God We Trust" in government buildings, courts and public schools is any indication, Mr. Lingamfelter's bill has a good chance of passing in the Republican-controlled House.
"There is a resurgence in displays of patriotism and faith," said Delegate Robert F. McDonnell, Virginia Beach Republican. "These bills reflect what's going on in the culture at large."
But several Democrats and civil libertarians say they believe conservative Republicans are using the tragedy of September 11 to ram through legislation that tears down the wall of separation of church and state even further.
"You can be patriotic without being unconstitutional," said Delegate L. Karen Darner, Arlington Democrat.
Miss Darner said the Ten Commandments proposal probably will not past constitutional muster because the Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that the biblical writings could not be posted in schools.
Although Mr. Lingamfelter said he believes his version of the law written with help from the Attorney General's Office will not be overturned in court.
Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said legislators Democrats and centrist Republicans are afraid to vote against the religion-themed bills because they fear being branded as unpatriotic.
"At one time, church-state bills, bills that promoted religion, had very few sponsors and were seen as being in the margins and quietly put aside in committee," Mr. Willis said.
This year, though, there has been little discussion and debate on the measures, compared with the discussions two years ago when the General Assembly approved a law requiring students to "meditate, pray or engage in any other silent activity" for one minute in their classroom.
The Supreme Court let that law stand last November.
Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William Republican, is the author of the "In God We Trust" bills. He thinks they will have a better chance now in the Senate, where they were killed last year.
"Maybe they will believe that we should [let] these things get out and get tested in court," Mr. Marshall said.
Mr. Marshall also introduced a bill, which passed overwhelmingly in the House, that would have the state offering "God Bless America" license plates.
And Delegate James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr., Fairfax Republican, saw his bill that would require teachers to instruct public-school children about patriotic songs, including "God Bless America," sail through the House Education Committee yesterday 22-0.
Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat who ran as a fiscal conservative candidate during last fall's gubernatorial race, has not indicated whether he would sign or veto the "God bills."
House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican, said Mr. Warner's true political colors will show when the "God bills" and other sensitive social-issue measures come across his desk.
"If these bills get to his desk and he vetoes them, it does say something about his political bent as being more liberal than he ran as," Mr. Griffith said.


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