By David Waters
The governor of the commonwealth of Virginia has decided, “in the interest of religious freedom,” to grant state chaplains the freedom to pray in the name of Jesus at public events.
“I just didn’t think it was right, the change that was made a couple years ago, to have an official state policy to tell chaplains of any faith how to pray, whether Muslim or Jew or Catholic or Christian,” Gov. Bob McDonnell told reporters Thursday.
If you reverse an official state policy on prayer with another state policy on prayer, it’s still a state policy on prayer, right?
The conservative Christian Family Foundation of Virginia doesn’t seem to mind, as long as it’s the right policy.
“We are obviously thrilled that Governor McDonnell has fulfilled his campaign promise to restore the religious liberty rights of state police chaplains,” Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, said. “His action reverses the discriminatory policy of the previous administration and ensures that chaplains can remain true to their faith at public events.”
Oddly enough, the ACLU of Virginia agrees with the Family Foundation, at least on the need for the state of Virginia to have the right policy on prayer.
“The (previous) 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,” ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis said.
Virginia’s Jewish Federation communities liked the previous policy better.
“(McDonnell’s policy) leads us toward unnecessary religious clashes, demeans our Commonwealth’s Jeffersonian principles and creates an unwelcoming environment for the Commonwealth’s Jewish citizens and other religious minorities,” six representatives of the groups wrote in a letter to the governor. “A final concern is the likelihood that revisiting this guidance would ultimately lead to litigation costly to our Commonwealth.”
This government prayer policy business can get complicated and costly.
The Virginia State Police created a chaplaincy program in the Year of Our Lord 1979 to minister to department employees and grieving families and speak at graduations, funerals and other ceremonies. Some of those government-affiliated volunteer chaplains were Christians, many of whom believe the only valid prayer is a prayer made “in the name of Jesus” — as instructed by the New Testament.
Ephesians 5:20: “Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Colossians 3:17 “And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.”
In 2008, state police Supt. W. Steven Flaherty, in the interest of the religious freedom of non-Christians, and concerned about legal challenges, directed the agency’s 17 chaplains to begin delivering neutral or nondenominational prayers at public functions.
“The department recognizes the importance of a state government agency to be inclusive and respectful of the varied ethnicities, cultures and beliefs of our employees, their families and citizens at large,” Flaherty said in a statement,
A government prayer policy should be inclusive and respectful of all beliefs.
Six of the chaplains resigned, saying Flaherty’s directive infringed on their religious freedom to pray in the name of Jesus. “There’s a fine line — but it’s a hard line — between an individual’s right to pray versus what is considered state-sponsored speech,” chaplain Rex Carter said.
A government prayer policy should be inclusive and respectful of individual beliefs.
When Flaherty issued his order, he cited a 2008 federal appeals court ruling that upheld the city of Fredericksburg’s policy requiring that opening prayers at city council meetings be nonsectarian — a policy that resulted from a legal challenge to sectarian prayers at the meetings.
“This is a victory for religious freedom,” Kent Willis, executive director of ACLU of Virginia, said of the Fredericksburg ruling. “The Supreme Court has long held that government officials are allowed to open legislative gatherings with a prayer, but that such prayers must in no way indicate a preference for one religion over others.”
And so it goes.
One government official grants us the freedom to utter sectarian prayers at public events and someone challenges that in court. Another government official grants us the freedom not to hear sectarian prayers at public events and someone challenges that in court.
Maybe the best government policy on prayer is NOT to have a prayer policy.
Or to quote the late Justice Hugo Black:
“It is neither sacrilegious nor anti-religious to say that each separate government in this country should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers and leave that purely religious function to the people themselves and to those the people choose to look to for religious guidance.”