Controversy Erupts Over Non-Sectarian Prayer Policy For Va. Police Chaplains

A flap over government-sponsored prayer has erupted in Virginia, where six state police chaplains have resigned over new regulations that require them to use non-denominational prayers at public events.

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

“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,” Flaherty noted in a statement.

The new policy does not bar sectarian language in all cases. For example, 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.

Flaherty’s position grew out of federal court decisions. In his memo, Flaherty pointed out that 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 diversity by using non-denominational prayers.

Some Virginia lawmakers began railing against the directive as soon as it was released.

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

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, a Republican from Salem County, tried 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, and indeed he was not. A Kaine spokesman later said Flaherty acted on his own but added that the governor supports the move.

The chaplains are all sworn police officers who offer counseling and ceremonial prayers at departmental events in addition to their regular law enforcement duties.

Commenting on the matter in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, AU Legal Director Ayesha Khan said, “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.”

In an Oct. 3 letter to Kaine and Flaherty, Americans United said state officials were right to discontinue sectarian prayers at government events. AU went on to urge the state agency to drop prayer completely so that all citizens would feel welcome at governmental functions.

“We applaud Superintendent Flaherty’s decision to feature only non-sectarian prayer at public police events and we urge the Governor to support Flaherty and this policy,” wrote Khan and AU Staff Attorney Ian Smith. “We also ask you to consider discontinuing the public police-department prayers in their entirety. That approach would ensure that believers and non-believers alike feel welcome at state police events and would also spare Virginia from potential legal liability.”