Va. legislator battling State Police prayer rule
A state legislator is renewing his effort to undo an administrative order requiring Virginia State Police chaplains to deliver non-denominational prayers at official events.
Del. Charles W. Carrico, a retired state trooper, claims the 2008 directive from State Police Superintendent W. Steven Flaherty violates the chaplains' constitutional right to free exercise of religion.
"It's not what our forefathers intended," said Carrico, R-Grayson. He said the order continues a trend of catering to "minority religions" while trampling on the rights of the Christian majority.
Carrico introduced legislation in the 2009 General Assembly after five of 17 troopers and state police supervisors serving as chaplains resigned from the voluntary position in protest of the directive. The bill lifting the restriction sailed through the House of Delegates but failed by one vote in a Senate committee.
Carrico already has refiled the measure for the 2010 session, which begins Jan. 13. He said he is hoping for a better result now that senators have had more time to think about the issue.
He also could get a boost from the change in the governor's office. Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine, who had threatened to veto Carrico's bill, will be succeeded by Bob McDonnell, a conservative Republican with close ties to the Rev. Pat Robertson.
“The governor-elect is a strong supporter of religious liberty and the right of religious officials to freely practice their faiths, unimpeded by government,” McDonnell spokesman J. Tucker Martin said. “He is reviewing the directive from that perspective.” He said McDonnell would withhold further comment until after he takes office.
Flaherty issued the order after a federal appeals court upheld a Fredericksburg City Council policy that banned opening council meetings with sectarian prayers. The order applies only to department-sponsored public events, not to private events such as funerals or counseling sessions with troopers or victims.
State police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said the directive applied to only one event in 2009 — the department's annual law enforcement memorial service. She said the department stands by Flaherty's 2008 statement that the state police must “be inclusive and respectful of the varied ethnicities, cultures, and beliefs of our employees, their families, and citizens at-large.”
The American Civil Liberties Union supports the state police position. Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU in Virginia, said it would be tough for the legislature to reverse the policy because of the appeals court ruling.
“Whatever legislators' personal feelings were, they were wise enough to reject the bill last year because it was unconstitutional,” Willis said.
John Whitehead, president of the Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute, isn't so sure about that. He said a provision in Carrico's bill requiring a disclaimer on printed programs stating that the invocations or benedictions are not government-sponsored “seems to be a good middle road.”
The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group that focuses on First Amendment and religious freedom issues, represented the Fredericksburg city councilman whose legal setback led to the state police order.
Whitehead said the directive fails to recognize that some faiths require prayers to acknowledge a specific deity to be valid. Many Christians, for example, believe they have to invoke Jesus' name.
“If someone's saying a prayer he feels is null and void, you wouldn't want him praying anyway,” Whitehead said.
-- Associated Press
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