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2017-5-5

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Before they vote, Virginia legislators pray

By Megan Schiffres, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – “May your will be done, dear Lord, this day and each day by these, your servants,” said the Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley.

“I pray that at the conclusion of this gathering that all matters whether confirmed, completed or channeled will have been divinely directed while also being considered by your judgment as good and as acceptable,” said the Rev. Carlos Jordan.

“We ask you Lord this day to guide this body in respecting human life from the moment of conception until natural death,” said the Rev. Dennis Di Mauro.

You might expect to hear such religious intonations in a church setting. But Adams-Riley, Jordan and Di Mauro weren’t directing their words to congregants; they were addressing members of the Virginia General Assembly.

Each meeting of the General Assembly begins with a prayer led by a religious leader. The practice dates back to colonial Virginia, and it is common throughout the United States. Almost all state legislatures use an opening prayer as part of their tradition and procedure, and the custom has operated on the federal level since the first Congress convened under the Constitution in 1789.

You may be thinking: Doesn’t this practice violate the separation of church and state? Some people believe it does, but the courts have ruled otherwise.

The First Amendment of the Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Those provisions, known as the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, were written to protect the religious liberties of Americans and prohibit the state from endorsing one religion over another. But they don’t specify what constitutes the establishment of a state religion.

“There’s a pretty robust history of government institutions in this country engaging in practices that one could very plausibly argue is suggestive of, denotes, is the equivalent of establishing a religion,” said Dr. John Aughenbaugh, professor of constitutional law at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Official symbols and rhetoric often blur the line separating religion and government. Examples include our national currency (which reads “In God We Trust”) and the oath of office taken by elected officials (who place a hand on a Bible and end with “So help me God”).

The constitutionality of legislative prayer was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1983 decision in Marsh, Nebraska State Treasurer v. Chambers. The high court ruled that legislative prayer did not violate the First Amendment because it “has become part of the fabric of our society.”

The issue re-emerged more recently when some residents of the town of Greece, New York, sued the town council for opening its meetings with a predominantly Christian prayer. The lawsuit said such prayers discriminated against people of minority religions and non-religious citizens. However, in 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, saying the town council had not violated the First Amendment.

Like the town of Greece, prayer in the Virginia General Assembly is overwhelmingly led by Christian faith leaders, who invoke Christian ideas about the will of God and the role of government in addressing legislators.

 
 

During the 2017 legislative session, Christian ministers led 95 percent of the prayers that opened the House and Senate, according to an analysis by VCU Capital News Service.

Fewer than three-fourths of adults in Virginia identify as Christian, according to the Pew Research Center. However, about 90 percent of Virginia legislators identify as Christian, and that is reflected in the religious leaders chosen to address the General Assembly.

The only other faiths invited to address the General Assembly were Judaism, Unitarian Universalism and Islam – the only other religions to which legislators belong.

The largest group excluded from leading the daily invocation at the General Assembly was non-religious people, atheists and agnostics, who make up 20 percent of adults in the state, according to the Pew study.

Over the course of the 2017 legislative session, the General Assembly spent a total of 1 hour, 53 minutes, and 43 seconds praying. Each invocation lasted an average of 1 minute, 38 seconds. To some, this is time well spent.

“I’m glad that it’s a part of our state government,” said Rabbi Dovid Asher, one of two rabbis to lead the General Assembly in prayer this session. “If I’m going to put somebody in office and vote for somebody, I want them to have a moment of reflection, of introspection during the course of the day.”

Other people, like Patrick Elliott, staff attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which advocates for the separation of church and state, view prayer in the General Assembly as an inappropriate and inefficient use of time.

“The legislators have a lot better things to put their energy and efforts into. It’s a waste of time. And if they were to want to pray or engage in religious practice, they should do so on their own time, not on taxpayers’ time,” Elliott said.

Religion influences politics but in different ways

By Megan Corsano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Religion plays a role in legislation involving everything from firearms to health care to marriage in the Virginia General Assembly.

Like their constituents, the vast majority of legislators are Christian. Religious lawmakers say that their faith shapes their values and outlook on life – but that they don’t impose their religious beliefs on others.

“We have a very rich, diverse General Assembly, and that’s a good thing in the sense that we have so many people that come from so many types of backgrounds,” said Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach.

He said being raised in the Christian tradition affects his legislative priorities – instilling in him, for example, a strong belief in an individual’s rights.

 

“I think my faith influences my worldview in the sense that every single person is created in the image of God and every single person has worth and has value,” Miyares said. “Every person also has conscience, and I think freedom of conscience is one of the hallmarks of how we were created by our creator: freedom of that choice to make decisions as your conscience dictates. Government should be very careful about forcing people to violate their conscience.”

Miyares said his religious background influenced which bills he supported during the General Assembly’s 2017 session – such as HB 1406, introduced by Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem. Although the bill was left in committee, it would have allowed nonviolent felons to carry firearms once their civil rights have been restored.

“I believe in the power of redemption for nonviolent offenders,” Miyares said. “Part of the reason I became a lawyer is that I have a deep appreciation for the law and for how it protects individuals.”

However, Miyares cites more than just religion as a factor on his politics. In 1965, his mother fled Cuba for the United States.

“My story doesn’t begin in Virginia Beach, Virginia; it begins in Havana, Cuba, with a scared 19-year-old girl who got on an airplane with a hope of a better life,” he said. “What I appreciate about this country is the fact that it’s a nation of second chances. My faith, Christianity, is also about second chances and the redemptive power of second chances.”

Based on the religious identification reported by each member of the Virginia General Assembly, about 90 percent identify with some denomination of Christianity. In comparison, about 73 percent of adults in Virginia identify with a form of Christianity, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014.

At the federal level, the religious makeup of the legislative branch has a similar breakdown. According to an analysis of data about the 115th U.S. Congress conducted by the Pew Research Center in January, 91 percent of congressional members describe themselves as Christians, while 71 percent of U.S. adults do the same.

Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, agreed that religion plays a role in how a legislator will vote on bills, but she cautions against religious convictions getting out of hand in the legislative process.

Price was raised in the Episcopal Church and attended Howard University School of Divinity for her master’s degree in theology. She has paid particular attention to the concept of religion and its role in her own life and the lives of her colleagues.

“When we’re out-rightly infusing religion into something that we’re doing on a policy basis or on a legislative basis, then we have to make sure that it is super-accurate, and we have to be careful about what the unintended implications may be with the words that we choose,” Price said.

Price used HB 2025from this year’s legislative session as an example of a policy coming from a religious basis.

The bill, introduced by Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe. It would have spelled out the right of pastors and other wedding officiants to refuse to “participate in the solemnization of any marriage,” and would have protected this refusal when the marriage contradicts “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.”

Price said that such a law would impose a “singular Christian view of marriage” into state policy.

“What I see as problematic is when people confuse holy matrimony with marriage,” Price said, referring to “marriage” in the sense of the state function. “That’s when they start to talk about their own values or beliefs. I’m a Christian, and I believe in marriage equality, so how can someone say that the Christian view is against gay marriage? It doesn’t allow for the diversity even within Christianity when people purport to speak from the ‘Christian perspective.’”

Like Miyares, Price said she sees her own religious experience as an influence on the way she conducts herself in her House district in Newport News and in the General Assembly.

“The way I was raised in my home church definitely impacts how I vote for certain legislation,” she said, noting that religion has instilled in her the values of equality and justice and a commitment to “love thy neighbor.”

According the Price, most of the bills she advocates for concern social justice. That emanates not just from religion but also from her family’s history in the civil rights movement.

“I do think my religion has some impact on what it is that I do, but I also know that other areas of my upbringing had that as well,” Price said. “Not all of us are Christian; not all of us subscribe to a religion in general. But we are making laws that impact all of those lives. I would think it silly to think that religion wouldn’t play a part because of what we bring to the table, but it has to play a part in productive ways.”

TOMORROW: KAINE TO CONTINUE DISCUSSION OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT IN THE CITY OF FRANKLIN AND AT RICHMOND MARINE TERMINAL

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Tomorrow, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine will travel to the City of Franklin and the Richmond Marine Terminal (Formerly Port of Richmond)  to discuss the importance of investments in workforce development and infrastructure to promote economic growth.

In the morning, Kaine, a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee, will join Paul D. Camp Community College President Dr. Dan Lufkin for a roundtable discussion with local community workforce development leaders and campus faculty and staff on the need to increase access to affordable higher education. They will also discuss the importance of workforce training and career and technical education (CTE) programs that help students gain experience and training necessary to prepare them for the high paying jobs of tomorrow.

Later, Kaine will travel to the Richmond Marine Terminal (Formerly Port of Richmond) where he will receive an update on investments to deepen the port to allow larger ships and efforts to increase trade. Deepening the port and expanding access will dramatically bolster the container capacity and economic competitiveness of the terminal.

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