- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2005

RICHMOND — A Senate panel yesterday rejected a constitutional amendment that would have allowed prayer in public facilities — one of several conservative, House-approved measures that senators have killed in recent weeks.

Opponents of the proposed amendment said it essentially would reinstate prayer in public schools. The House approved the measure on a 69-27 vote earlier this month.

Senators — many of whom supported tax increases last year — also this year defeated legislation proposed by House delegates that would have barred illegal aliens from attending state colleges or penalized persons for wearing clothes that reveal their underwear. Both measures easily passed the House.

Republicans control both chambers, but there have been feuds between the two legislative bodies for several years.

The most prominent split came last year when both could not agree on tax increases. The dispute led lawmakers to extend the regular winter session to 115 days.

The majority of the 40-member Senate had approved a $4 billion tax increase package that the House rejected. Both chambers agreed to a $1.38 billion tax increase only after a group of Republicans broke with their party’s leadership and voted in support of the raise.

The philosophical differences between the two chambers resurfaced yesterday when the Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted 10-5 to kill the prayer amendment proposed by Delegate Charles W. Carrico Sr., Grayson Republican.

The amendment would have allowed prayer and other professions of “religious beliefs, heritage and traditions” on public property, including schools. Under state law, it already is legal for schools in Virginia to allow time for silent prayer and to permit religious student clubs to meet during noninstructional time.

Most senators said they don’t think the Virginia Constitution should be changed, and noted that the amendment would protect Christians, who constitute the majority in the state, and hurt those who practice other religions.

“Majorities don’t need to be protected, minorities do,” said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax County Democrat. He said amending the constitution would invite an “avalanche” of lawsuits.

Mr. Carrico disagreed. “The majority faith in this country is the one that is under attack, and that is the Christian faith,” he said. “The Christian faith in this country has been grossly persecuted over the past few years.”

Mr. Carrico said professions of faith recently have been confined to the “four walls of your church,” adding: “Our country was built on the Christian principles of the Bible. Today, our constitution, in my opinion, has to be strengthened to protect those rights of all Christians around this country.”

The amendment would have affected the religious freedom guarantees created in the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, authored by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Senators said the amendment wasn’t needed because religious freedom already exists.

“I see absolutely no reason to amend the constitution to do this; it’s simply not necessary,” said Sen. John S. Edwards, Roanoke Democrat. “It survived 219 years without being tinkered with.”

Michael P. Farris, a conservative constitutional lawyer, argued the amendment was necessary to protect religious free speech.

Mr. Farris said he once defended a child whose school principal forced him to stop praying before lunch.

“This has got to stop,” said Mr. Farris, who was a Republican nominee for lieutenant governor in 1993. “I think we need a constitutional provision that’s for the people ” all the people — including local government officials who frankly need a civics lesson.”

Sen. Kenneth Thomas Cuccinelli II agreed, saying activist judges are putting religious freedom in jeopardy.

The Fairfax County Republican said U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the early 1960s striking down organized prayer by school officials “have swung the pendulum too far the other way.”

“The fact of the matter is the Founders, who would have never thought of atheism as a religion, are now confronted with a Supreme Court that does,” Mr. Cuccinelli said.

The deep division between the two chambers has been more evident on social measures involving abortion and homosexual adoption.

For example, a Senate committee recently rejected a House-approved measure that would have required doctors to give anesthesia to an unborn child during an abortion. The House voted 72-20 to approve the bill. The Senate Education and Health Committee rejected the legislation on a 9-6 vote.

The fate of House bills in the Senate has become so predictable that delegates now often joke about a Senate committee room having a “trap door” for delegates who present bills that senators know they will not endorse.

During floor debates, lawmakers frequently refer to their colleagues in the other chamber as “the body down the hall,” instead of using their proper names.

Each chamber has its own version of what Richmond insiders call “Kill Day,” when a House or Senate committee rejects a significant number of the other chamber’s bills. The House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee most recently rejected red-light camera and seat-belt bills that were approved by the Senate.

Some senators recently made comments about the maturity level of the delegates.

During a debate on the “Droopy Drawers” bill earlier this month, Mr. Edwards said he thought the delegate who sponsored the measure should have gotten more guidance from House leaders. The House had voted 60-34 to approve the bill, which would have imposed a $50 fine on those caught with their underwear exposed.

“This has passed the House of Delegates by 60 votes, and I think it is up to the Senate, using perhaps more mature judgment, to deal with this in the appropriate fashion,” Mr. Edwards had said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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