Updated: McDonnell lifts ban on State Police troopers referring to Jesus in public prayers
After months of lobbying by conservative activists, Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) has quietly reversed a policy banning Virginia State Police troopers from referring to Jesus Christ in public prayers.
McDonnell this afternoon sent Col. W. Steven Flaherty, the State Police superintendent, to tell the nine troopers who serve as chaplains about the change in policy.
"The Governor does not believe the state should tell chaplains of any faith how to pray,'' McDonnell spokesman Tucker Marin said. "Religious officials of all faiths should be allowed to pray according to the dictates of their own conscience, and in accordance with their faith traditions, while being respectful of the faith traditions of others.
"Prior to a change two years ago, the State Police permitted those participating in the volunteer State Police chaplain program, established in 1979, to pray in accordance with their own faith. The Governor believes that longstanding bipartisan policy is the appropriate one. This policy puts the State Police chaplains in the same position as those in the United States Military, Virginia National Guard and other law enforcement agencies."
In September 2008, Flaherty told chaplains to offer nondenominational prayers at department-sanctioned public events in response to a recent federal appeals court ruling that a Fredericksburg City Council member may not pray "in Jesus's name" during council meetings because the opening invocation is government speech.
Then-Gov. Tim Kaine (D) was not involved in Flaherty's decision, but said at the time that he supported it. Legislators considered -- but killed -- bills to change the policy in 2009 and 2010.
Donald Blake, president of Virginia Christian Alliance, said last week that he spoke to McDonnell about the change at a recent fundraiser at the governor's mansion and at a private meeting with McDonnell's chief of staff Martin Kent.
Other groups, including the Family Foundation of Virginia, also support a change and have been lobbying for one. The governor's office has received a handful of letters, faxes and emails in support of a reversal.
Earlier today, the ACLU of Virginia sent a letter to McDonnell urging him not to change the policy.
"The policy enacted by the state police is consistent with federal court rulings, and it serves the important purpose of preventing state police chaplains from violating the First Amendment," ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis said. "There is no reason for the Governor to bow to pressure from groups that are encouraging the police to break the law by delivering sectarian prayers at government events."
The State Police chaplain program was created in 1979 to minister to department employees and grieving families and speak at graduations, funerals and other events and ceremonies.
"We are obviously thrilled that Governor McDonnell has fulfilled his campaign promise to restore the religious liberty rights of state police chaplains,'' said Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia. "His action reverses the discriminatory policy of the previous administration and ensures that chaplains can remain true to their faith at public events."
April 28, 2010; 2:56 PM ET
Categories: Anita Kumar | Tags: Bob McDonnell, Tim Kaine, Virginia State Police
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