Virginia Considers Law to Allow Police Chaplains to Say 'Jesus' While Praying
February 20, 2009 - 6:36 PMMembers of a Virginia Senate committee may vote Monday to advance a bill that would re-instate the right of state police chaplains to pray "in Jesus Name, or "in the name of Allah" – or to refer to other religion's deities in their prayers.
Chris Freund, vice president of policy and communications at The Family Foundation of Virginia, explained the need for the bill.
“Late last year, the state police of Virginia passed a new policy that forbids their chaplains from praying in the name of a specific deity. For instance, they are not allowed to pray in the name of Jesus,” Freund said.
The state police policy stemmed from a policy that was adopted by the city of Fredericksburg, Va.
“The Fredericksburg city council basically put the same gag order on people praying before their city council meetings, saying they can’t pray to a specific deity – and a local court ruling confirmed that,” he said.
Until last week, there were two bills designed to reinstate the ability of chaplains to pray as they see fit – one from the House and one from the Senate.
Senate Bill 1072 was designed to allow individuals offering prayers at government events to do so "from their hearts, following the dictates of their conscience." That bill died last Wednesday on a 9-6 vote in the Senate Courts of Justice committee.
“The Senate bill was very broad,” Freund told CNSNews.com. “It would have covered all state agencies, local governments, city councils – any kind of government meeting and would have allowed people to pray according to their conscience,” Freund said.
“I think the bill was so broad that a few senators were concerned about how far they could go.”
Now the same Senate committee will take up HB 2314, which passed the House a week ago, 66-30.
“Because the House bill is narrower and speaks only to the police chaplain situation, it could see a better fate than the Senate bill,” Freund said.
Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, opposes the bill.
“This bill authorizes representatives of the government, at government events, to deliver sectarian prayers,” Willis told CNSNews.com. “The U.S. Supreme Court has been absolutely clear about this – if you are a government official, representing the government, giving an official prayer, like opening up a legislative body, or opening a government event, then you are speaking on behalf of the government at that moment. You are government speech. And when the government speaks, it cannot show a preference for one religion over others.”
Can a court really dictate what a minister or chaplain can pray?
“That’s the $64,000 question,” Freund said, “In our opinion, no, and I think according to the Supreme Court and most of the circuit courts of the United States, the answer is clearly no.”
Freund, meanwhile, said police chaplains are no more “speaking on behalf of the government” than chaplains who open legislative bodies or other meetings in prayer.
“There is a 1983 decision, the Marsh decision, in which there was a Nebraska chaplain who prayed, and a member of the Legislature sued, saying he didn’t like the way the chaplain was praying – “in the name of Jesus” – and that lawmaker lost,” Freund said.
“In the decision, the Supreme Court said that prayer has been part of our history in legislative bodies since the beginning – since the First Continental Congress – and it is absolutely protected speech, and it doesn’t have to be ‘non-sectarian’ or ‘non-denominational’ in that setting. You can pray any way you want to.
“What we have is a bunch of people who are trying to argue that that case doesn’t apply anymore,” Freund said. “But we disagree with that position.”
Six of the 17 state police chaplains resigned after the announcement of the regulation.