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Virginia House: Put Jesus In Police Prayers

After emotional pleas from both sides in a debate that cited Jefferson, Jesus and Jacob, Virginia's House of Delegates yesterday voted 66-30 to let state police chaplains pray in the name of Jesus.

For half an hour, delegates traded ideas about what freedom of religion really means and whether, in a public, state-supported setting, it's more important to let each person express his faith in full, or to guarantee to people of all faiths that their state will not lend its authority to any one denomination.

The proposal, House Bill 2314 by Del. Charles Carrico (R-Grayson), himself a retired trooper, would reverse an administrative order that chaplains restrict themselves to non-denominational prayer at official events. That order, from State Police Superintendent Steven Flaherty, was issued in September after a federal court upheld the constitutionality of a similar move by Fredericksburg's city council. Six of the state's 17 police chaplains quit their voluntary positions to protest the new policy.

In Richmond yesterday, all 50 Republicans voting supported the bill, as did 14 Democrats and two independents. The No votes all came from Democrats. In a classic example of the cultural divide between northern Virginia and the rest of the state, virtually all Democrats from the Washington suburbs voted against the bill. (Exception: Steve Shannon, the Fairfax Democrat who is running for attorney general.)

The case for the bill was made most eloquently by Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), a Virginia history buff who is one of the most conservative members of the House. He quoted from a copy of the Bible that was owned by Thomas Jefferson and is now Griffith's prized possession. He argued that Jefferson's Statute of Religious Freedom, which is engraved on the walls of the Virginia House, demands that the state allow its citizens to express their faith however they may wish to. And he praised a state trooper who defied State Police rules and cited Jesus in a prayer delivered at a police Christmas celebration.

"I got chill bumps from the courage and strength" the officer demonstrated by breaking the rule against denominational references, Griffith said. The trooper told the delegate that "I may need a ride home from work today" if he were to be fired for violating the rules, "but I only know one way to pray."

Griffith accused civil libertarians who had lined up against the bill of "Orwellian doublespeak."

But Del. Lionell Spruill (D-Chesapeake) bristled at Griffith's reliance on Jefferson as a model for moral guidance. "Jefferson was not all that righteous to black folks," Spruill said. "Don't talk to me about 'our forefathers.' I don't want to hear it."

Spruill, who is black, said "I love God and I love Jesus," but denominational prayer has no place in state-sanctioned settings.

Opponents of the bill said it will inevitably be found unconstitutional once court challenges are filed, which the ACLU announced it intends to do. Del. David Englin (D-Alexandria), who was born and raised on military bases, said Virginia should model its rules after those of military chaplains, who he said stick to "nondenominational, inclusive prayer" to accommodate all faiths. When Englin served in the military, he said, "My ability to express my Jewish faith was protected by military chaplains of all faiths. Christian and even Muslim chaplains organized services for me."

Loudoun County Democrat David Poisson similarly pleaded for a rule that would require chaplains to "not use words that highlight the differences between us," and he quoted Jesus's words in Matthew urging believers to pray in their rooms with the doors closed. "We can all be different faiths and still be one in prayer," Poisson said.

But proponents of the bill said nondenominational prayer just doesn't suffice for many Christians. "My Christian faith, which is the essence of what I am, truly believes in" prayer that directly speaks to Jesus, said Del. John Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake.) "Yet you will not hear me take offense if someone from another religion cites the name of" the object of their faith's worship.

Carrico, the ex-trooper who introduced the bill, quoted Jesus's words in Matthew: "Everyone who acknowledges me publicly here on Earth, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But everyone who denies me here on Earth, I will also deny before my Father in heaven."

"If you were to ask a Christian chaplain not to say those words, he is violating the very words of the ever-essence of his religious beliefs," Carrico said.

Del. Bob Marshall (R-Prince William) noted that many Christian pastors who recite the opening prayers in the House each day refer to Jesus and "no descendant of Abraham, Isaac or Jacob has yet been stricken down" in the House chamber.

Rarely in the legislature do two sides talk past each other so utterly as they did on this bill. Of course, in most states, such debates rarely, if ever, occur. But the beauty and the oddity of Virginia is that these kinds of confrontations happen every year, without fail. That puts elected officials to the test of weighing their personal convictions against their constituents' beliefs. It also distracts lawmakers from burning questions about budget cuts and job reductions that will dominate this session.

But Jefferson and the other founders wanted the Virginia General Assembly to be a debating society as well as caretaker of the people's business. On this day, that tradition was upheld, even if the result once again reveals just how divided the state is, politically and culturally.

The Senate has not acted on its version of the bill; if past performance can be trusted, senators will find a way to avoid the issue.

By Marc Fisher |  February 5, 2009; 1:32 PM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I fervently pray in Jesus' name that Bob Marshall is gerrymandered out of his House seat in 2011.

Posted by: EAHarrison | February 5, 2009 1:48 PM

It's not talking past each other; it's to incompatible positions that cannot be reconciled.

Posted by: ronjaboy | February 5, 2009 3:26 PM

Isn't the obvious solution to get rid of state chaplans? Pray on your own time.

Posted by: simpleton1 | February 5, 2009 3:30 PM

Damn Protestants. You just dont see to many of us Catholics getting our thongs in twist over this issue. Protestants need to chill and relax. Protestant scum need to realize that since they split off they are all going to hell.

Posted by: sheepherder | February 6, 2009 8:35 AM

And Jesus was a Catholic not a Christian!

Posted by: sheepherder | February 6, 2009 10:22 AM

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