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Walking a fine line

Lawmakers tred lightly on issues involving church and state

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

CHARLESTON -- The morality card has seen big play this Legislative session. Just don't expect to hear the "G" word.

Area legislators and lobbyists say God- or faith-based tactics have, in large part, been abandoned in favor of the trench-style warfare used by other interests.

"As you attempt to put a coalition together, you're already going to have some people who object on a morality basis," said Sen. Michael Oliverio, D-Monongalia, a crusader against video poker.

"Maybe that's only 25 percent. You need at least another 25 percent."

That equation could be clearly seen in an anti-gambling press conference he staged Tuesday with three other senators.

The group presented primarily economic arguments. Morality was not mentioned except by one senator who made it clear his opposition had nothing to do with it.

Not quite religion

"We feel that our faith compels us, but we're not out to preach religion," said Charlotte Snead, a Harrison County woman who is president of the West Virginia chapter of Right to Life and led a rally at the Capitol Wednesday.

Snead said the chapter has seen its most success by campaigning for pro-life candidates and lobbying.

She contacts pro-life voters through the Internet, for example, to activate them when certain bills are pending.

This year, the group is promoting a bill that would require abortion providers to give patients an information packet prior to an abortion.

"I don't wear my religion on my sleeve and they (legislators) certainly can't," said Snead.

"What I have to do is equip them with (health and economic) data. ... If you say, 'Thus saith the Lord,' a lot of people are going to go into rebellion."

Maybe yes, maybe no

Sometimes the data tactic doesn't work.

In a Tuesday meeting of the House Education Committee, two delegates tried to add religious language to a character education bill proposed by Gov. Bob Wise.

Their attempt to link issues such as sexual abstinence and the reading of historical documents to non-sectarian health or patriotism causes failed amendment by amendment.

At one point, Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley, was put to the separation-of-church-and-state test when asked to define "faith."

He was trying to add the phrase "faith-based principles" to a list of character issues that ranges from honesty and hard work to -- ironically -- the "corrupting influence and chance nature of gambling."

He was unable to without making reference to religion.

Del. Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, is convinced all such legislation will fail if legislators see upholding the Constitution as their chief moral duty.

An attorney, she particularly believes a pro-life license plate bill supported by Del. Barbara Ann Warner, D-Harrison, will not slip through on a freedom-of-expression defense.

"It's an unwise road for the state to go on," she said of opposing the bill on constitutional grounds.

"It's selling advertising to a movement. Are we going to allow Nazi movements?"

A fine line

Fleischauer said the difference between religious morality and constitutional government can be a fine one, however.

"Murder violates one of the Ten Commandments, but it's also a civics issue," she said.

Sen. Joe Minard, D-Harrison, said the line between moral and immoral can be equally thin.

A Roman Catholic, he said gambling has particularly presented a quandary for him.

In the 1980s, when a bill allowing a state lottery came up, it added gambling but "put the crooks out of the numbers business," he said.

He said this year's gray machine bill presents a similar choice.

Using gambling funds to support scholarships or a veterans nursing home for Clarksburg further complicates the morality issue, he added.

The latter is tied to scratch-off lottery proceeds.

"We're going to use some of that money. But I think it's important to build something good for veterans and for Clarksburg."

Oce Smith, House sergeant at arms and a four-decade political veteran, said such controversies are long term.

He said almost every delegate he has met has been influenced by morality, regardless of religious beliefs.

"Some are just moralists but they don't tie it into the deity ... if they're not from a fundamentalist faith they don't want to necessarily be tagged as that, but they do want to express their morality."

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com.

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