(Photo: SYATP / File)
The Commonwealth of Virginia is one step closer to passing a bill meant to protect student prayer in public schools, as the measure has passed the upper house of the state legislature.
In a close vote on Tuesday, the Va. Senate approved Senate Bill 236, which was sponsored Republican Sen. Bill Carrico of Grayson County.
On a post added to his Facebook account on Thursday, Carrico expressed thanks for the support he received from constituents and fellow lawmakers.
"On Tuesday, the Virginia Senate passed a bill that I sponsored protecting the rights of students to pray in public schools. Now SB 236 heads to the House of Delegates," said Carrico.
"I'm thankful for the support the bill received in the Senate and I look forward to working with the House members toward the same goal."
Introduced to the Va. Senate earlier this month, SB 236 seeks to codify the "right to religious viewpoint expression" for students in public schools.
"Students in public schools may voluntarily pray or engage in religious activities or religious expression before, during, and after the school day in the same manner and to the same extent that students may engage in nonreligious activities or expression," reads SB 236 in part.
"Such groups shall have the same access to school facilities for assembling as other student-organized groups and shall have the same opportunity to announce or advertise meetings as other student-organized groups without discrimination based on the religious content of the students' expression."
Initially referred to the Senate Committee on Education and Health, SB 236 went through three readings before the Tuesday vote.
SB 236 passed the Senate with 20 yeas to 18 nays. From there it has been sent to the House of Delegates and on Friday was referred to the Committee on Education.
SB 236 has garnered its share of criticism from church-and-state watchdog groups, like the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
ACLU of Virginia has stated that "students' rights to express and practice their faith in the public schools are already well-protected by existing federal and state laws."
Sarah Jones of the Washington, DC-based group Americans United for Separation of Church and State offered similar criticism for SB 236, writing that student prayer is "already covered by federal law."
"There is no war on the rights of Christian students. They've always been entitled to pray privately in school, just as they've been entitled to form religious clubs," wrote Jones.
"The Supreme Court's rulings on the matter have been consistent: students cannot be coerced into religious observance. Public schools were never meant to be centers for sectarianism."
Other groups, including the conservative organization the Family Foundation of Virginia, hailed the passage of the bill, calling Carrico "a longtime defender of religious liberty."
"It evens the playing field for students who have a religious viewpoint, protecting them from unwarranted discrimination, and only requires school boards to adopt policies that protect that speech," reads an entry on their website.
"We appreciate that 19 of 20 Republicans voted to support religious liberty with their votes for the bill, as well as Democrat Senator Phil Puckett (D-38, Tazwell). The only Republican to vote against the measure was Senator John Watkins (R-10, Chesterfield)."
The bill is expected to pass the overwhelmingly Republican House of Delegates. According to local media, Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe has not specified whether or not he will sign the bill into law should it come to his desk.