This year, Senator Bill Stanley (R-20, Moneta) has introduced a state constitutional amendment, SJ 287, that would help clarify and restore some of our religious liberties. (The resolution is co-patroned by Senator Bill Carrico (R-40, Galax). It passed the Senate Privileges and Elections committee earlier this week after lengthy debate, and will be voted on by the full Senate early next week. This is the first time in recent memory that a religious liberty amendment has been voted on by the full Senate!
For years, the free speech and free religious exercise rights of Americans have been slowly chipped away by federal courts. Now, in many places in Virginia, we no longer can pray at the start of a local government meeting, our kids can't mention their faith in graduation speeches, and far too often government bureaucrats silence religious speech in an attempt to enforce the "separation of church and state" without understanding constitutional rights.
The debate over religious liberty has surrounded the establishment clause and free exercise clause of the First Amendment. Secular liberals have used the establishment clause as a mallet to bludgeon the free exercise of religion, essentially arguing, as they did in the committee, that "private" religious free exercise is just fine (most of the time) but as soon as such activity becomes "public," such as praying at a government meeting, it is a violation of the establishment clause.
They are basically stating that when the government simply allows public free exercise of faith it is "endorsing" or "establishing" that faith, which makes it, in their eyes, unconstitutional. (Never mind the nonsense of the argument — as if there is one unified Christian faith, or that a prayer at a public event constitutes a particular, sectarian religious service.)
Such logic relegates faith to nothing more than a private matter, silencing our voice in the public square. It flies in the face of the Founders' vision and endangers the freedom of all faiths. Unfortunately, because much of the damage done to our freedom has been at the hands of federal judges, states are left with little to do, except send clear messages to the federal government that it is improperly applying the First Amendment.
That's where Senator Stanley's amendment comes in. Based on an amendment passed overwhelmingly just last year in Missouri, SJ 287 plainly restates that people of faith — all faiths! — have the right to express their faith in the public square, whether that be at a government meeting or a high school graduation.
Many Virginians are tired of the government's assault on our faith. The Founders never intended for faith to be a "private matter," as evidenced by not only the First Amendment but by their words and actions. It is time that Virginians send a clear and unambiguous message to the federal government that we have had enough.