Virginia State Police Change Prayer Policy
Chaplains can once again invoke Jesus at public events.
April 29, 2010
Dena Potter — Associated Press
RICHMOND – RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – Virginia State Police chaplains can once again invoke Jesus, Allah and other deities during official prayers.
At the request of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, State Police Superintendent W. Stephen Flaherty on Wednesday reversed a 2008 order that required volunteer chaplains to deliver non-denominational prayers at public events.
The policy change came the same day McDonnell reappointed Flaherty to his position, which he has held since 2003.
Flaherty – with the support of then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat – changed the policy two years ago following a federal court decision that said prayer at government events was only constitutional as long as it was nonsectarian. The directive applied only to government-sponsored state police memorials or trooper graduations, not to private venues such as funerals or in counseling grieving troopers or their loved ones.
The change prompted six chaplains to resign. Nine remain today.
State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller referred all questions to the governor’s office.
“The governor does not believe the state should tell chaplains of any faith how to pray,” said Tucker Martin, McDonnell’s spokesman. “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.”
Religious groups had asked McDonnell to change the policy. Legislative efforts to do so have failed in the last two legislative sessions.
Religious groups hailed the decision, while opponents said it could provoke a lawsuit.
Since taking office in January, McDonnell has been criticized for omitting partners in same-sex relationships from an executive order banning discrimination, leaving off any mention of slavery while designating April as Confederate History Month and toying with the idea of requiring felons to write detailed essays to him explaining why he should restore their civil rights.
Smith said the prayer policy would have to “be revisited either by the administration or the legislature or the courts in the very near future.”
Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the change in policy likely would lead chaplains to offer sectarian prayers at police-sponsored events “thus inviting litigation.”
“Any hint that the government prefers one religion over others not only constitutes an endorsement of a particular religion, but also implies that other religions are somehow inferior,” Willis said in a statement.
Conservative groups, however, rejoiced at what they called the end of a discriminatory policy.
“We’re glad to see the gag lifted,” said Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia. “Virginia is a pluralistic place where we can respect each other’s faiths, but that doesn’t force us to be silent about our own conscious beliefs.”
The original policy had been in place since 1979, when the volunteer chaplain program was established.
Martin said Flaherty’s appointment had nothing to do with his decision to reinstate the prayer policy but on his “outstanding leadership of the State Police over the past seven years.”