The Library of Virginia has an informative new exhibit “First Freedom” that includes documents on the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom penned by Thomas Jefferson and passed by the Virginia General Assembly in 1786. The original manuscript on parchment drafted by Thomas Jefferson is housed at the Library of Virginia. Termed in the exhibit as “one of the most revolutionary pieces of legislation in American history,” I believe it is the most important piece of legislation ever passed by the Virginia legislature and possibly by any legislative body. It codified freedom of conscience. The meaning of the Virginia Statute as it found its way into the Virginia Constitution’s Declaration of Rights and the U.S. Bill of Rights is still debated today.
Just across the street from the Library of Virginia the General Assembly met in the Commonwealth’s Capitol in a reconvened, day-long session to consider vetoes and amendments made by Governor Terry McAuliffe to bills passed by the 2016 session of the General Assembly that had adjourned in March. One of the bills that had passed the legislature would have stretched freedom of religion to include the right to discriminate against others because of your religion. Specifically, the bill would have allowed all forms of discrimination against the LGBTQ community. North Carolina and Mississippi continue to make headlines as more businesses and events leave the states because of a law just like the one passed in Virginia. Fortunately Governor McAuliffe vetoed the bill, and both houses refused by straight party-line votes in the reconvened session to override the veto.
In the House I led the debate to sustain the Governor’s veto of a bill that would have established a statewide system of censoring literature in the schools that some may consider sexually explicit. As I pointed out, local school divisions led by elected school boards should be the place to accommodate parent concerns about materials used in the classroom. I personally remember the time when the state had its own history textbook written, but it was so biased and slanted that I and other teachers refused to use it.
Good news in the area of gun safety is that the legislature—again on straight party-line votes—sustained the Governor’s vetoes of bills that would have made guns more readily available. The proponents of the NRA interests continue the false argument that most people are killed in gun-free zones. Democrats also sustained the Governor’s veto of a bill that would have defunded Planned Parenthood.
An issue of disappointment to me in the reconvened session was the approval of an amendment by the Governor that will allow the Commonwealth to procure in a secret process the drugs necessary to carry out the death penalty. I voted against it. While the amendment will forestall a return to the electric chair, I would have preferred a moratorium or end to the death penalty. The Governor made it clear that each member should vote their conscience, but had his amendment not passed he would have vetoed the electric chair bill.
It is an honor to serve in a body where freedom of conscience has such a long and important history.