The VA Constitution — Does It Mean What it Says?

One of the interesting side issues to arise in 2011 has been the Attorney General’s opinion that the state may not make any appropriations of public funds to churches or non-profits.

Actually, the “opinion” itself was exactly correct, if superfluous, because the VA Constitution in Article IV, Section 16 is very clear:

“The General Assembly shall not make any appropriation of public funds to any church or sectarian society or any association which is entirely or partly controlled by any church or sectarian society.  Nor shall the General Assembly make any like appropriation to any charitable institution which is not owned or controlled by the Commonwealth.”

There’s no ambiguity in that.  The state cannot make an “appropriation” of public funds to a 501(c)(3) organization or a faith-based body.  (Ironically, that same constitutional section allows the Assembly to give authority to localities to make such appropriations).

To say that this section has been traditionally ignored in Richmond would be an understatement.  There are dozens of budget line items given annually to “non-state” agencies, providing access to everything from dental care to the performing arts.  And every year lawmakers, Democratic or Republican, put in more requests for these private appropriations. 

This is not mindless pork.  These local organizations are critical in today’s transient and multi-lingual Virginia.  They fill a social void that the state bureaucracy simply cannot meet  (e.g., the center run by Centreville’s Korean Central Presbyterian Church cares for Korean-speaking elderly who would be helpless in a state facility). 

These organizations are flexible and they bring their own expertise, as well as private donations, to the table.  Only a fool would ignore their public policy benefits.

Right now, the state is dealing with the “Section 16″ issue by having non-state organizations contract with the state, so they don’t directly receive the appropriation.  Instead, they get a check from a state agency, so that the funds come out of an agency budget.

This is a solution, but not a great one.  Obviously, these organizations are still getting funding, albeit indirectly.

The better solution is to amend the Constitution to specify that the Assembly shall make no appropriation to churches or non-profits, EXCEPT for those non-sectarian public purposes approved by the General Assembly.

Faith-based organizations are on the front lines, especially on issues like homelessness and drug dependency.  Local charities like FACETS and Northern Virginia Family Services, which work with churches, are just as important.   Should they be 100% privately funded, when they are taking on a state obligation?  Of course not.  They should be permitted to contract with the state like any other organization. 

And please don’t tell me that government traditionally has no role in public art.  (Sistine Chapel?  Arc de Triomphe?  Lincoln Memorial?)  Yet without non-profits in Virginia like the Wolf Trap Foundation, our state commitment to the arts would be nil.

The drafters of our Constitution wrote in clear language.  The Attorney General was correct to state that it means what it says.  But we the right to amend it in a way that is faith-neutral and people-positive.

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  • LarryG

    I think the ruling is healthy. They apparently found a method to fund the community health centers.

    How did that work?

    One would presume that the State has essentially contracted for these Community Centers to provide services to citizens – that are needed – and can be delivered via non-govt employees.

    If you think about this – it opens up the whole idea of what the purpose of govt is an how it goes about deciding how to decide what services it considers itself responsible for (and not) and whether it needs State employees or non-state employees to do the work.

    For this reason, I think the “pause and think about what we are doing” is healthy.

    I do not believe that the automatic answer is to alter the Constitution and lucky for us the forefathers DID ALLOW for it but made it hard.

    Should state tax payers being paying for Community Health Centers?

    I find that question – provocative and worthy of debate and concurrence from the folks paying the taxes.

  • Chap

    Thanks for the comment Larry G. Keep in mind that the “authors” of the Constitution are not the founding fathers. This version of the constitution was drafted in 1971.

  • LarryG

    Just out of curiosity, when was the provision about charities put in the Constitution? Has it been in there a long time or just put in lately?

  • Groveton

    Yes, today’s Virginia constitution was adopted in 1971. As I recall from my public school history courses, the prior constitution was written in 1902. The 1902 constitution was essentially a roll back of the 1870 constitution. Confusing? There have been seven Virginia constitutions. Here’s the basics of the last three:

    1971 – basically demanded by the federal government to replace the overtly racist 1902 constitution.

    1902 – A classic example of classic Virginia. Written to disenfranchise African Americans with poll taxes, literacy tests and segregated schools. It was passed to obviate the 1870 constitution written by reconstructionists. The longest lasting Virginia constitution – it was written by the same kind of political elite who would bring massive resistance and other appallingly racist ideas to Virginia. In what must have constituted gall even for Virginia’s political class, this constitution was never passed by popular referendum. Virginia’s political elite were worried that a combination of blacks and right thinking whites might just defeat this testament to official racism. So, there was no vote.

    1870 – Written during the Reconstruction while Virginia was under northern military rule. Most whites boycotted the constitutional convention leaving only “radical republicans” to draft the 1870 constitution. The Party of Lincoln drew up a relatively modern constitution with voting rights regardless of race and mandatory funding for schools. Needless to say, it was rewritten by Virginia’s entrenched “political elite” 32 years later.

    I’ve lived in Virginia all of my life. I was taught about “The War Between the States” and sometimes “The War of Northern Aggression.”. It was only when I was older that I began to understand the full magnitude of the debased, incompetent, corrupt, racist and evil political class in Virginia.

    Our history is shameful. Our history must remain foremost in our minds. We must always remember what a few fools in Richmond can do to an entire state. We must never let these people back into control.

    Virginia’s present constitution was written by the usual gang of political hacks in Richmond after the federal government essentially told our legislature that overtly racist constitutions would no longer be tolerated in the 1970s. That’s the 1970s LarryG, not the 1870s.

  • LarryG

    I think I missed the part about when the no taxes to charities part was written.

    was that part written by racists or “other”?


    but I take the point…. well taken.. like it or not.. NoVa is south of the Mason Dixon line – always has been and yes.. Va has joined the other Southern states with it’s share of racists.

    The north also has some not so wonderful history in the treatment of blacks also but it was more social than institutional.

    I grew up in Va and anyone who did with more than 60 years on their body know that Virginia had a lot of moments not to be proud of.

    But if you think about this – we also had white indentured servants and the initial governance was based on gentry decision-making and to this day – Virginians are not allowed to initiate referenda – something I think would straighten out the General Assembly overnight.

  • Groveton


    Virginia’s history is sometimes sad and always complex. I assume the rule against charities was initiated in the 1971 constitution.

    The core lesson of Virginia history is the centuries long effort by a very few to dominate very many. It is an ironic twist to the state with the proudest history of democracy and free will.

    From the smarmy crowd who still proclaim themselves to be among “the first families of Virginia” to the Byrd machine, Virginia politics has been characterized by corruption, greed and incompetence. While much progress has been made (especially neutralizing the worst of the long time Richmond oligarchs) there is still room for improvement. Vestiges of the Richmond politburo still exist from the Commonwealth’s absurd love of Dillon’s Rule to an allergic reaction to citizen initiated referendum. Anybody who doubts that “bad Ole Virginny” still exists need only look at this year’s appalling redistricting fiasco. Or the fact that a state senator had to fence with a sitting governor to implement existing regulations on a fuel tank farm located entirely within a single district of Fairfax County.

    The few still seek to control the many in Virginia. We must fight against this tyranny at every turn.

  • LarryG

    I believe a good number of States are Dillon Rule INCLUDING Maryland.

    ” Thirty-nine states employ Dillon’s Rule to define the power of local governments.”

    but not all Dillon Rule States are equal in the way it is implemented.

    It’s a lot less odious in states like Maryland but in Virginia – the rationale for Dillon is to not allow local government to decide what to tax – the premise that local govt can be incompetent and corrupt (what a concept, eh?) AND once taxing decisions made.. very hard to undo them since citizens only recourse is to vote out the offending BOS – which is structured with staggered elections is damned near impossible and as stated before, citizens do not have the right to initiate referenda nor recall.

    So I basically agree with your fundamental premise.

    The folks in Richmond. The Folks in Norton, and Emporia and Shenandoah all, essentially have their hands in the business of NoVa (and vice versa) to not such a good outcome at times.

    I’m also curious what the original framers philosophy was with regard to charities and if that is a common feature of other State Constitutions.

  • Groveton

    Dillon’s Rule is a philosophy of law. First articulated by an Iowa judge (named Dillon), it says that localities were never mentioned in the US Constitution. Therefore, localities could derive no power other than those provided by the state governments.

    All states are subject to Dillon’s interpretation since it has been upheld in various courts. However, many states have decided that letting people be represented by those close to them is a good idea. A quote often attributed to Thomas Jefferson is that “the government which governs closest to the people governs best.”. But the Commonwealth of Virginia has had nothing to do with the founding fathers or their philosophies for two hundred years. After Madison, Jefferson, Washington and the other founding fathers left for national office the schemers from Richmond took control of Virginia. These disgraceful people viewed Richmond as a colonial power and the rest if the state as their colony. Needless to say, there was no movement to dilute Dillon’s Rule.

    I see good and bad in both the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and the Virginia General Assembly. However, the quote attributed to Jefferson is still valid. I am better represented by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors than I am by the Virginia General Assembly. Period. If Northern Virginia’s General Assemblies were to put the needs of their constituents ahead of their own party loyalty and egos they would be the first in line to dilute Dillon’s Rule in Virginia.

  • LarryG

    there are – a number of as-yet unused more self-reliant governance actions that Fairfax could still employ especially with regard to local roads and local taxing for roads.

    Arlington and Henrico have taken those steps which basically means they have accepted the same arrangement that VDOT has with Cities and Towns.

    I see that as a significant lack of initiative on Fairfax’s part.

    It kind of undermines your position when you asking for more independence while not exercising what you already have the power to do.