Of Prayer, Police And Petty Politics: An Arresting Flap Over Chaplains Strikes Virginia

Rather than continue to squabble over these issues, perhaps the answer is to discontinue the police chaplaincy.

It looks like a new "culture war" is brewing in Virginia.

Six state police chaplains have resigned over new regulations that require them to use non-denominational prayers at public events. Several state legislators are apoplectic. One has already launched a Web site to overturn the ruling, and others are talking about legislative action to nullify it.

Deep breath, everyone, deep breath.

W. Steven Flaherty, superintendent of the state police, has directed the department's 17 chaplains to use non-denominational language at events like trooper graduation ceremonies and memorial services for officers who have died in the line of duty.

In a statement, Flaherty noted, "The department recognizes the importance of a state government agency to be inclusive and respectful of the varied ethnicities, cultures and beliefs of our employees, their families and citizens at large."

Chaplains can still use denominational language at private funeral services. If a fallen officer was Christian, his or her service will feature Christian language and rituals. But at public events likely to include representatives of many faiths and none, specific religious references are not to be used.

It sounds like a reasonable position. Furthermore, it has been mandated by the courts. As Flaherty has noted, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that local governments may not open their meetings with prayers that reflect just one religious tradition. They are expected to respect our country's religious diversity by using non-denominational prayers.

Nevertheless, some Virginia lawmakers are railing against the directive. Del. Charles W. Carrico Sr., a Republican from Grayson County, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "It's a separation of Jesus and state, which offends me greatly. What we have here is an attack on the name of Jesus, on the name of Christ. And I'm not going to sit back and just let it happen."

Carrico has started a Web site to rally opposition to the regulation and has vowed to introduce legislation to nullify it.

Meanwhile, House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, a Republican from Salem County, has decided to exploit the flap for partisan purposes. Griffith issued a press release accusing Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine of being behind the directive. Griffith cited no evidence that Kaine was involved because there isn't any. (For the record, a Kaine spokesman said Flaherty acted on his own but added that the governor supports the move.)

I don't live in Virginia, but I see a lot of news from that state since the northern region forms part of the Washington, D.C., metro area. Virginia is facing some serious problems. The state budget is stretched thin, but there is a pressing need for new highways and/or expanded public transportation networks in Northern Virginia.

In short, Virginia's part-time legislature has enough to do without getting bogged down in an extended fight over prayer.

This incident should serve as a reminder of why state-funded chaplaincies are such a questionable concept. The Virginia State Police has 17 chaplains, all of whom are sworn officers. When you put someone on the public payroll and one of the job's requirements is to pray, questions inevitably come up about what type of prayers should be said and whether proselytizing is ever appropriate.

As AU Legal Director Ayesha Khan told the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, "There's a fair amount of case law that says you can't include prayer at public events. But certainly if you do include them, they should be nondenominational."

Rather than continue to squabble over these issues, perhaps the answer is to discontinue the police chaplaincy. Let the state police do their job of patrolling the highways and fighting crime. If residents of Virginia feel the need for spiritual solace, there are plenty of clergy in the state who will help them.