July 17, 2007

Victory for Religious Freedom in Virginia

In four different legislative sessions over the last eight years, the Home School Legal Defense Association has attempted to better protect religious freedom in Virginia through the Religious Freedom Act (RFA). The RFA was first introduced by Delegate Don McEachin in response to a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the federal Religious Freedom Act and left Virginia with very little protection for religious freedom.

However, finally, in the 2007 legislative session, after three previous defeats during two other administrations, God graciously allowed passage of the RFA in Virginia! Earlier this year, HSLDA Senior Counsel Christopher J. Klicka once again presented the previously drafted language to another delegate for a fourth try. This time, he asked Delegate Scott Lingamfelter to introduce the RFA. Klicka prepared Lingamfelter with arguments in favor of the Act and against past objections which were likely to be renewed.

By God’s grace, the Religious Freedom Act passed and is now law! The Act was signed by Democratic Governor Tim Kaine at the end of March and becomes effective in July.

Passage of the RFA demonstrates the principle of the widow at the judge’s door in the Gospel of Luke. In that story, the widow kept pleading with the unjust judge, asking for justice. He would not respond to her, but finally, in exasperation, said, “Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!” Luke 18:4-5.

This “widow at the judge’s door principle” was applied by homeschoolers in Virginia, who were not willing to accept defeat when the RFA failed to become law three previous years, starting in 1999.

Lingamfelter enlisted the support of William Thro, state solicitor with the State Attorney General’s office. Thro and HSLDA Attorney Scott Woodruff testified before the House Subcommittee on Civil Courts in January 2007; this, along with Virginia homeschoolers flooding the offices of Committee members with emails and phone calls, gave the RFA a good start. The next target was the House of Delegates. Homeschoolers once again poured out phone calls, and the bill passed in time for it to proceed to the Senate.

In February, Klicka and Thro testified before the Senate Committee of Courts of Justice. After an attempt by the ACLU to sabotage the bill was rebuffed, the RFA passed the Committee and went to the full Senate. Homeschoolers again poured out phone calls to the Senate, and the bill passed 28-11.

Nobody else in the state of Virginia was working to send calls to the senators and delegates or the committees to gain passage of this bill—it was the homeschoolers alone. Homeschoolers did this even though they currently have a religious exemption for homeschooling; they were willing to fight for religious freedom for all citizens of Virginia.

After a modification regarding prisoners that was added by Governor Kaine, the slightly altered bill again was passed with flying colors during the veto session of the House of Delegates.

This means that Christian Virginians, as well as people of other faiths, confronted with a state law or city ordinance that conflicts with their religious beliefs can invoke the RFA. This RFA requires that the state prove that the regulation or law in question is “essential to fulfill the state’s compelling interest” and that it is “the least restrictive means of fulfilling that compelling state interest.” These are high burdens for the state to prove, and it evens the playing field so that Christians, and those of other religious faiths, will have a chance against the powerful authorities.

This is the same standard that was created to protect the rights of people who freely exercise their religious belief under the United States Constitution and by the United States Supreme Court back in the 1960s. However, it was thrown out as a required standard of review by the Supreme Court in 1990, but was restored through passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993. However the United States Supreme Court reviewed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in a 1997 case and struck it down as applying only to federal, and not state, law.

After this, HSLDA joined a crusade to pass religious freedom acts state by state. Currently there are 14 states in which HSLDA has helped persuade legislators to pass RFAs: Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

We are using Pennsylvania’s Religious Freedom Protection Act to protect scores of Pennsylvania homeschoolers who are resisting that state's restrictive homeschool law. We have also invoked it in Florida to avoid unnecessary portfolio reviews.

Virginians now have an opportunity to have their religious freedoms well-protected.

We are thankful to God for His mercy in allowing the Religious Freedom Act to become law.