ACLU continues push on prayer issue

Edited by Chris Graham

The ACLU of Virginia is pushing the issue regarding a recent move by State Police Superintendent Col. W. Steven Flaherty to rescind a two-year-old state policy requiring state police chaplains to deliver only nonsectarian prayers at government-sponsored events.

The civil-liberties group is providing Flaherty with pamphlets offering a description of the legal status of prayers at government events. The ACLU is asking Flaherty to distribute the pamphlet to all police chaplains to make it clear that they may deliver only nonsectarian prayers at department-sponsored events.

Comments by Gov. Bob McDonnell accompanying the announcement of the policy’s rescission made it clear that he endorses sectarian prayers at such events, even though they are unconstitutional.

“Our simple message to the superintendent and to police chaplains is to follow the law, regardless of whether or not a prayer policy is in place,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “Our pamphlet does more than just state the bottom line that official prayers at government events must be nonsectarian. It also explains to chaplains how the courts came to their decisions leading to current state of the law.”

The ACLU is prepared to offer legal representation if impermissible prayers are offered by police chaplains, and a plaintiff steps forward.

The original policy banning sectarian prayers was instituted by Flaherty in 2008, shortly after the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a similar policy requiring only nonsectarian 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 one religion over others.

Last week, the Family Foundation of Virginia and the Virginia Christian Alliance asked McDonnell to rescind the policy as part of a campaign promise.

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 Delegate Charles W. Carrico, Sr. 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.

A copy of the letter can be found online at:

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