Chaplain Controversy: Virginia Legislators Endorse Christian Police Prayer

The Virginia House of Delegates passed legislation yesterday that would allow state police chaplains to pray in the name of Jesus Christ at public events, despite federal appeals court decisions that have banned such prayers.

The legislation stems from some delegates' outrage over what they saw as "forced" resignations by six police chaplains in September. The chaplains stepped down after Virginia State Police Col. Steven Flaherty issued a directive requiring police chaplains to avoid denominational prayers at public events, such as trooper graduations.

"When troopers take on the added responsibility of serving as chaplains, they reinforce their commitment to serve the public," House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith told the Washington Times in September. "To then require those troopers to disregard their own faith while serving violates their First Amendment rights and prevents them from serving effectively as chaplains. These men had little choice but to resign."

The bill was discussed in a "spirited debate" yesterday in the House of Delegates. Proponents of the bill see Flaherty's order as a violation of these chaplains' religious liberty; others claim this to be another attack on Christianity.

"I do not want to interfere with anyone else's religion," Del. Charles W. Carrico, who drafted the bill, told the Associated Press. "I am a Christian and I will profess that. The Christian faith happened to be the one under attack when this came about."

Yet Flaherty's action was in line with both the U.S. Supreme Court and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rulings.   Flaherty is not attacking Christianity; he is merely upholding the Constitution.

Government-sponsored events should not involve prayer, Americans United wrote in a letter to the delegates before their vote on Tuesday. But if there is prayer, it should be non-sectarian, in keeping with U.S. Supreme Court decisions, rulings from lower courts and the Constitution.

The Virginia bill does not meet any of these basic standards, begging the question: Does the state really want to waste scarce funds on useless litigation defending a clearly unconstitutional measure?

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine seems to think not. He promised to veto the bill if it landed on his desk.

"If I see legislation that is attempting to counter that [court] decision I will probably not support it," Kaine said. "One, because I don't think it's the right thing to do; and two, I know what happens when the General Assembly decides to go against the federal courts.

"We lose, and then we pay our own attorneys, and then we pay the other side's attorneys money," Kaine continued. "We're trying to find money for safety-net services. I ain't interested in spending a lot of money on lawyers to come back and give me an answer I already know the answer to."

Unfortunately, Kaine's advice seems wasted on Virginia's legislature. The House voted for the bill 66-30, close to what is needed to override a governor's veto, and the Senate has also introduce a similar version of the bill.

When this flap erupted, we opined that it could become another front in the Religious Right's "culture war." That won't happen if cooler heads in the Virginia Senate do the sensible thing by rejecting this measure.