ACLU asks McDonnell to back prayer policy
Edited by Chris Graham
The ACLU of Virginia has asked Gov. Bob McDonnell to ignore lobbying efforts aimed at rescinding a policy requiring that prayers offered by state police chaplains at police-sponsored events be non-sectarian.
State Police Superintendent Col. W. Stephen Flaherty instituted the policy in 2008 shortly after the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a similar policy requiring only non-sectarian prayers at the opening of Fredericksburg City Council meetings. In its decision on the Fredericksburg policy, the Fourth Circuit relied on Supreme Court precedents holding that prayers delivered on behalf of the government must not favor any one religion over others.
“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,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “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.”
“This is a policy the governor should embrace, not reject,” Willis said. “As individuals we have the right to practice the religion of our choice, but the governor’s job is to see that the state of Virginia protects religious liberty for all. He can only do that by making sure that government agents do not favor any particular religion when they represent the state in the performance of their official duties.”
Since the policy’s adoption, legislators have twice attempted to pass a law prohibiting the police superintendent from regulating the content of prayers offered by chaplains at official functions. In 2009 a bill sponsored by Del. Charles W. Carrico passed the House of Delegates, but was later voted down in the Senate. Carrico’s 2010 version of the bill was left in committee with no action taken.
The Supreme Court has ruled that in limited circumstances the government may offer prayers without violating separation of church and state. However, such prayers must be broad, inclusive and non-sectarian in order to avoid religious favoritism by the government. Exceptions have been made for military personnel and incarcerated persons, who must rely on government agents for their religious experiences.