September 25, 2008

Virginia Chaplains Resign Over Prayer Censorship; AP Goes Into ‘GOP Attacks’ Mode

Virginia State Police chaplains can’t invoke the name of Jesus Christ during department-sanctioned events.

But to the Associated Press and its reporter Bob Lewis, that’s not the story. In all too typical traditional media fashion, and in what I believe is the wire service’s first report on the controversy, Lewis decided that the real story is that Republican lawmakers are objecting to the ruling by the state’s police superintendent, and to Governor Tim Kaine’s agreement with it.

Before getting to what Lewis wrote, here is a local report on what has transpired, from Roanoke TV station WDBJ:

Six Virginia State Police Chaplains resign over request not to reference Jesus Christ

Six of 17 Virginia State Police Chaplains have resigned over a request they not reference Jesus Christ at public events.

Instead, they’ve been instructed by the Superintendent to offer non-denominational prayers, a decision made following a recent ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Chaplains are trained in ministry and counsel employees and their families.  Troopers volunteer for the program which began nearly 30 years ago.  The policy does not apply to private services like funerals.

The decision was internal, but does have the support of Governor Tim Kaine.

In a statement Wednesday, Grayson County Delegate Bill Carrico called on the Superintendent to abandon, “this attack on Christianity.”

Delegate Morgan Griffith says, to “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.”

The station then carried the statement of State Police Superintendent W. Stephen Flaherty, which includes this paragraph:

With the recent ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Turner vs. City of Fredericksburg, the Superintendent asked Department chaplains to offer non-denominational prayers at Department-sanctioned, public events (i.e. trooper graduations and the annual memorial service). The Colonel respects those chaplains whose convictions and beliefs are in conflict with his request, and is affording those Department chaplains the opportunity to decline participation at Department-sanctioned, public events. The Superintendent’s request does not affect chaplains offering their services at private ceremonies (i.e. funerals) or when counseling individual employees and their families in their time of need.

The Turner case ruling is here. Councilor Hashmel C. Turner invoked Jesus’s name in an opening prayer in 2003. As a result, the American Civil Liberties Union complained. Turner did so again; the ACLU threatened legal action. Council adopted a policy in 2005 (Turner abstained from voting on the policy) that prayers at Council meetings be “non-demoninational.” Then, in late 2005 (from the ruling):

Councilor Turner was scheduled to give the opening prayer on November 22, 2005. The Mayor asked Councilor Turner whether he would continue to invoke the name of Jesus Christ in his prayers. Councilor Turner said he would, and as a result, the Mayor did not recognize Councilor Turner to give the opening prayer.

On January 10, 2006, Councilor Turner filed a Complaint against the Mayor and the City alleging violations of his First Amendment rights of Free Speech, Free Exercise of Religion, and non-Establishment of religion and equal protection under the law.

Turner lost in court. The U.S. court in Richmond ruled that “the opening prayer is government speech,” “The Supreme Court and this circuit require that legislative prayer be nonsectarian,” and that “The City Council’s policy does not violate the Establishment Clause.”

The decision is being appealed to the Supreme Court, something the AP’s Lewis didn’t tell readers until his final three paragraphs. Here are some key passages from his report, including a later paragraph that inadvertently tells us a lot (bold is mine):

Two Republican lawmakers accused the Kaine administration Wednesday of an “attack on Christianity” for asking State Police chaplains to keep prayers nondenominational at some public events.

A news release issued Wednesday by House Republican Leader Morgan Griffith said some Virginia troopers who serve as chaplains gave up those roles because they can’t pray in Jesus Christ’s name in some circumstances.

Griffith’s attack arose from a recent directive state police superintendent Col. W. Steven Flaherty issued to chaplains to keep prayers nondenominational at department-sponsored public events such as graduations from the trooper training academy.

….. “Colonel Flaherty needs to abandon this attack on Christianity,” Carrico said. He said the administration had bowed to “political correctness” by issuing the directive even though there had been no complaints about the chaplains’ prayers.

“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,” he said in Griffith’s release.

….. Kaine’s office said the House’s Republican leadership was making the faith of Virginia’s first Catholic governor grist for an election year.

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

….. The three judges (in the Court of Appeals case) disagreed with Turner, ruling that he was not forced to offer a prayer that violated his religious tenets. Turner had the chance to pray on behalf of the government, the court said, but was not willing to do so within the government’s guidelines.

Lewis’s statement mirrors language in the Appeals Court’s ruling. Thus, in essence, we see courts concluding, and AP’s Lewis’s eagerly carrying the message, that when you become an elected public servant, you carry out your official duties at a meeting as a representative of the government, not as a representative of the people who elected you. That’s quite out of kilter from what our Founders intended, as well as common sense.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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2 Comments

  1. I wish Evangelical Protestants had the same courtesy Catholic priests have. Every Catholic Police and Fire Chaplain I’ve known ministers the unaltered Catholic faith to Catholic officers and firefighters. But when giving public prayers to interfaith gatherings they do not invoke the Blessed Mother or St. Anthony, or bless the gathering with a holy relic. (and if they ever did, I would bet the very chaplains now complaining would object).

    Governor Kaine, I suggest you use the clergy of the your own Catholic faith as an example of a good Police Chaplain.

    Comment by katherine — September 25, 2008 @ 10:39 am

  2. IT IS NOT A CRIME TO PRAY IN JESUS’ NAME !!!! r.

    Comment by MARK — September 28, 2008 @ 4:56 pm

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