Virginia Politics: Dems, Kaine fight back against GOP flame-throwing on prayer policy

The Top Story by Chris Graham

House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith and Grayson Republican Del. Bill Carrico are promising a pitched legislative fight in next year’s Virginia General Assembly to overturn a Virginia State Police policy crafted in response to a ruling from the conservative Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals from the summer banning sectarian prayers at government-sanctioned meetings and events.

And they’re not above using the fight to take a shot at Gov. Tim Kaine, a former Catholic missionary and key surrogate for Democratic Party presidential nominee, in the meantime.

“For those of us who understand the importance of religion in American life and value the free expression of religion as one of our essential rights, the Kaine administration’s directive is disappointing and disheartening,” said Griffith earlier this week, referring to a directive actually put out by State Police Superintendent Col. Steven Flaherty, who recently told his agency’s 17 chaplains to begin delivering neutral or nondenominational prayers at functions such as trooper graduation ceremonies and its annual memorial service for fallen officers in response to the Fourth Circuit ruling in a case involving a Fredericksburg City Council ban on sectarian prayers at its council meetings.

That ban had been challenged by a council member who ended his prayers at the start of council meetings with the words “in the name of Jesus Christ” and claimed that the ban violated his First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and religion. The three-judge court panel disagreed, saying that the councilman was not forced to offer a prayer that violated his religious tenets and that he had the chance to pray on behalf of the government but was not willing to do so within the government’s guidelines.

Griffith and Carrico used the State Police policy to dig at Kaine, titling a press release on the issue sent to reporters earlier this week “Kaine administration prohibits State Police chaplains from mentioning Jesus Christ.” “With one misguided action, the Kaine Administration has put the chaplains in an impossible position,” Griffith said in the release. “When troopers take on the added responsibility of serving as chaplains, they reinforce their commitment to serve the public. To then require those troopers to disregard their own faith while serving violates their First Amendment rights and prevents them from serving effectively as chaplains. These men had little choice but to resign,” Griffith said, noting the decisions of six of the department’s 17 chaplains to resign in protest of the directive.

“This decision wasn’t based on any complaints about the chaplains, because I’ve been told there haven’t been any,” Carrico said in the release. “It aggravates me when public servants act unilaterally out of a supposed fear of getting a complaint, instead of actually having to deal with one. That ‘fear’ is being used by the administration to justify a decision made in the name of political correctness. Instead, all they’ve achieved is another needless attack on faith, free religious expression, Christianity, and the First Amendment,” said Carrico, himself a former state trooper, who it was noted in media reports on this story is working to launch a website to rally for a reversal of the department directive,

The Kaine administration has been strenuously fighting back, with a letter from Kaine going out on Thursday to Griffith decrying the “great deal of misinformation” in the Griffith-Carrico news release and chiding Griffith in particular for making public an issue that he did not feel compelled to raise in a meeting that Griffith and Kaine had attended together the day before the news release was sent to reporters and for attempting to play politics with the governor’s faith.

“The governor is a man of faith, and he has dedicated his life to that service,” press secretary Gordon Hickey told reporters in response to the statements of Griffith and Carrico. “It is disappointing that Del. Griffith would make such a political attack on Gov. Kaine about his faith.”

In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, State Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, said it is “disingenuous” for House Republicans to criticize the governor “for the very thing his clerk of the House of Delegates does each and every time someone comes to pray before the House of Delegates. That clerk, just as the clerk of the Senate does, requests that the minister of the day give an ecumenical prayer,” McEachin said. “That is, at the end of the day, all that the governor has done. So if it’s good enough for the House of Delegates, and it’s good enough for the State Senate, then the governor should not be criticized for doing essentially the same thing,” McEachin said.

On the same call, Del. Dwight Jones, a pastor at First Baptist Church in Richmond and a candidate for mayor in Richmond, called the statements from House Republicans “ridiculous” and “rather strange” given that the directive from Flaherty had also been vetted by the office of Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who is the presumptive ’09 Republican Party gubernatorial nominee.

The AG’s office avoided saying directly whether it had vetted the chaplain policy. Spokesman Tucker Martin said the office “does not discuss legal advice given to our clients.” “In his individual capacity, Attorney General McDonnell is a vigorous supporter of religious liberty and the right of the clergy to freely practice their faith,” Martin said.

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