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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Delegate: Most State Laws Find Moderate Middle Ground; A1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Courts will have to take religious displays on public property that fall into a gray area on a case-by-case basis, according to Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in McCreary County, Ky., v. the American Civil Liberties Union.

“There is no simple answer, for more than one reason,” wrote Justice David Souter, delivering the opinion of the court.

The ruling found that an outdoor monument in Texas was acceptable under the First Amendment’s “Establishment Clause,” which proscribes any action which would create an official state religion, while two indoor displays in Kentucky were not acceptable.

In Virginia, questions about faith in the public square have been muted at the General Assembly for the past 10 years, according Del. Joe May, R-Leesburg.

The legislature’s last brush with the Decalogue was in 2002, when Del. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Woodbridge, proposed legislation ordering the Board of Education to work with the attorney general to draft guidelines for the optional posting of the commandments in public schools.

Delegates narrowly passed the bill, but it was killed in the Senate.

That’s reflective of a sensibility that seems to operate throughout the legislature, according to May, whose district includes Clarke County. Virginia has a long history of balance between the protection of religious expression and prohibition of an established religion.

“Virginia as a state has seen that there’s a good balance between church and state,” he said. “I’m very comfortable with Virginia and her policies.”

Proposals that tend too far one way or the other are most often moderated before they become law, he said.

Also in 2002, the General Assembly approved laws that require the posting of the national motto “In God We Trust” in all public schools in the state and in all courtrooms as soon as the state provides funding for the posting.

Del. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, one of the key figures behind Virginia’s law that forbids the recognition of civil unions, was the chief patron for both bills, as well as another that gives localities the authority to post the motto in their administration buildings.

The initial version of all three bills would have required the posting in local government buildings, as well.

The most recent vote on matters of faith was a constitutional amendment that won approval in the House of Delegates but failed in the Senate.

Put forward by Del. Charles Carrico, R-Independence, House Joint Resolution 537 would have put a constitutional amendment before voters that would change the state’s bill of rights.

“Neither the commonwealth nor its political subdivisions shall establish any official religion, but the people’s right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, and traditions on public property, including public schools, shall not be infringed,” would have been added to Section 16, which guarantees free exercise of religion and forbids the state from establishing a religion.

Other patrons included local Dels. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal, and Beverly Sherwood, R-Winchester.

Legislators also took up the issue of school prayer in 1994, when they approved legislation instructing the Board of Education and attorney general to come up with guidelines governing student prayer, and a law designed to preserve student-initiated prayer.

In 2000, the General Assembly passed a resolution urging Congress to amend the constitution to permit school prayer, and made changes to the “moment of silence” rule that governs the start of school days.