According to this report, the Virginia House of Delegates has approved a bill that removes a restriction previously requiring that chaplains for Virginia state police offer “ecumenical, non-denominational prayers” at official events.
Backers of the bill said it restored the chaplains’ right to religious freedom. But opponents said the bill violates the First Amendment by having the state advocate one specific religion.
Del. Charles W. Carrico, a retired State Police trooper, drafted the bill after State Police Superintendent W. Steven Flaherty issued a directive to chaplains to offer generic prayers at department-sponsored public events such as graduations from the trooper training academy.
“I do not want to interfere with anyone else’s religion. I am a Christian and I will profess that,” said Carrico, R-Grayson. “The Christian faith happened to be the one under attack when this came about.”
Flaherty issued the guidance in response to a 2008 federal appeals court ruling upholding a Fredericksburg City Council policy against opening council meetings with prayers that mention Jesus.
The directive does not apply to chaplains in private venues such as funerals or in counseling grieving troopers or their loved ones.
[House Majority Leader H. Morgan] Griffith called opponents’ use of the same constitutional free-worship guarantees to argue that the bill is an impermissible state intrusion into religion “Orwellian doublespeak.”
Del. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, said the bill blurs the distinction “between state-endorsed religion vs. the exercise of free religion by individuals.”
Ebbin, who is Jewish, said that when he attends a Christian church, he expects to hear prayers in Christ’s name and accepts them.
“When I go to a public event in a public-sanctioned forum, I do not expect to be excluded,” Ebbin said.
The bill is not that surprising, and will probably never be enacted, as Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine will likely veto it, and even if he didn’t, it would likely be ruled unconstitutional anyway during the lawsuit that the ACLU has threatened.
First Amendment law professor Kathleen Bergin caught this article, and not so much for the law as the response by one dissenting, Democratic delegate:
Del. Lionel Spruill, who opposed the bill, made his disdain for Islam clear in a floor speech. In making a point about observing diverse religious traditions, he said Muslim relatives who visit his Christian church are asked to remove their traditional head coverings.
He said he has no problem with most clergy who offer the daily invocation at the start of each House session.
“From time to time we have certain people who come here, certain people who pray here, and depending on who it is, I’ll walk out that door, especially those in the Muslim faith I don’t care too much about,” he said.
Professor Bergin’s response:
Spurill’s vote against the bill wasn’t rooted in a concern about the crumbling wall that’s supposed to separate church from state, or protecting the state from the inevitable ACLU suit that would follow passage of the bill, but the mere prospect of including an Imam at an official police event.
I don’t understand why this part of the story hasn’t gotten more coverage (ok, so I do), but could we ever imagine an elected state official making such remarks about any other religion, and having it go virtually unnoticed in the national press?
Indeed, Delegate Spurill’s comments are awful, but they are a true example of exactly why the Establishment Clause exists to keep religion out of government. (Interestingly, one could also use his comments as evidence for the other side–that if a chaplain comes to deliver a prayer that any particular state official or police officer disagrees with, he or she could just step out into the hallway. Of course, it doesn’t often work that way.)
But this statute is also a poignant example of the “unseen” half of the Establishment Clause. The Establishment Clause works not only to keep religion out of government, but also to keep government out of religion. Because the Virginia state patrol has chaplains, it must pass regulations deciding to whom those chaplains may (or may not) pray at official functions, to avoid endorsing a religion and violating the First Amendment. Yet, in doing so, the state “waters down” the practice of many of those chaplains’ faiths, at least in their official capacity. This is why the original Lemon v. Kurtzman court was concerned about “excessive entanglement” with religion (although modern courts have shrugged off that concern). How can you have chaplains providing faith services to civil servants when the government commands what the scope of those services can be? Do the chaplains truly have a Free Exercise right to say “in the name of Jesus, Amen”? Is watered down prayers to the “Almighty Creator” better than no prayers at all? Are non-Christian police officers part of the “outgroup” when an “Endorsed” chaplain proselytizes? Or is it the chaplain’s “freedom of conscience” that is violated? And what about minority religious figures? It seems that every time the government gets this involved in providing some sort of “religious tone”-especially before “official events,” this stuff happens. There are no easy answers to these questions. And it appears that Pres. Obama hasn’t learned this lesson, either.