Monday, February 21, 2005

Editing Jefferson
Editing Jefferson

Monday, February 21, 2005; Page A26

CHARLES W. Carrico Sr., a Virginia lawmaker, has decided to rewrite the Founding Fathers. Mr. Carrico, a state trooper-turned-Republican-delegate from Grayson County in southwestern Virginia, says he believes Christians are being silenced and persecuted. "America was founded on Christian beliefs," he proclaims. "Christianity is the majority faith in this country, and yet because the minority has said, 'I'm offended,' we are being told to keep silent." Yet Mr. Carrico's "solution," an amendment to a passage of the Virginia Constitution adapted in part from Thomas Jefferson's famous Statute of Religious Freedom, is unnecessary, vague and disingenuous as to its real intent. If incorporated into the Constitution, it would defile the language of Jefferson and embolden religious activists for whom the Founding Fathers' doctrine of separation of church and state is a nuisance.

Mr. Carrico's amendment codifies the "people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage and traditions on public property, including public schools," as long as no one is required to join in prayer or religious activity. The prayer part is unnecessary because it changes nothing. Praying is already legal at Virginia public schools; the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects it, and the Supreme Court, as recently as three years ago, let stand a lower court ruling allowing a daily minute of silence in public schools, during which students may pray. But recognizing religious beliefs and traditions starts to sound ominously vague, and might conceivably include activities clearly beyond the constitutional pale, such as baptizing born-again students in classrooms or erecting shrines in the cafeteria.

Before entering the state constitution, Mr. Carrico's bill must be passed in two successive years by the General Assembly and approved by voters in a referendum. Whatever his amendment's wording, Mr. Carrico's agenda -- advancing the practice of Christian belief in public schools -- is clear enough from his comments, and he is plainly unconcerned with any discomfort he might inflict on non-Christian students. The section of the state constitution he would amend, Article I, Section 16, prohibits the General Assembly from conferring "privileges or advantages on any sect or denomination." Yet conferring advantage on Christians by dint of their majority status seems to be just what Mr. Carrico hopes to achieve. And there can be little doubt that its expansive language would be seized on by religious activists spoiling for a fight. By tinkering with Jefferson's original language while seeking to inspire faith-based mischief, the amendment combines arrogance and irresponsibility.