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Senate panel defeats bill aimed at meeting prayers
Senate prayer bill defeated

Date published: 2/10/2009


A Senate committee yesterday killed a bill that would have barred local governments from regulating prayers said at their meetings.

Sen. Steve Martin, R-Chesterfield, introduced the bill in response to a State Police directive that police chaplains should not use denominational prayers at public events.

That directive was in turn prompted after a federal appeals court upheld a Fredericksburg City Council policy that banned any sectarian prayer in public prayers that open council meetings. The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear the case.

Martin told the Senate Courts of Justice committee that his bill was intended to protect the freedom of religion of anyone who delivers a prayer on behalf of a governing body.

"Prayer is and of itself is an act of faith," Martin said. "No one should have dictated or restricted by any government entity how they might pray."

Supporters of Martin's bill said it was constitutional, and cited court cases allowing denominational prayers at public government meetings. An attorney from the Attorney General's office said they believed Martin's bill was constitutional.

But opponents said it wasn't. Senate Courts committee staff attorney Steve Benjamin agreed.

Benjamin told senators that the ruling in the Turner vs. Fredericksburg case actually protected Fredericksburg's right to have a city council policy against denominational prayers at council meetings. Councilman Hashmael Turner had wanted to pray to Jesus Christ.

The Fourth Circuit court ruling upheld Fredericksburg's ban on denominational prayers, Benjamin said, and Martin's bill was intended to do the exact opposite--it would bar localities from making such policies about public prayers.

As such, Benjamin said, he believed the bill was intended to permit sectarian prayers.

"The predominate purpose of this bill is to advance religion it is, in a word, unconstitutional," Benjamin said.

While some lawyers on the committee disagreed with Benjamin's reading of the bill, it was killed on a 9-6 vote.

The State Police directive resulting from the Fredericksburg case has also inspired a House bill. Del. Charles Carrico, R-Greyson, has a bill that bars the state police from regulating the content of prayers delivered by their chaplains.

That bill has passed the House of Delegates, and will have to go through the Senate.

Gov. Tim Kaine has indicated he's likely to veto Carrico's bill.

Chelyen Davis: 804/782-9362
Email: cdavis@freelancestar.com