- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2008

At least six of the Virginia State Police’s 17 chaplains have resigned following a request they offer only “nondenominational” prayers during department-sanctioned public events and ceremonies, police said Wednesday.

The request was made by state police Superintendent Col. W. Steven Flaherty earlier this month and has been decried by Virginia House Republicans as a violation of the First Amendment and an attack on Christianity. One Republican delegate said chaplains were told they could not invoke the name of Jesus, but a state police spokeswoman denied the assertion.

To “require those troopers to disregard their own faith while serving violates their First Amendment rights and prevents them from serving effectively as chaplains,” said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican. “These men had little choice but to resign.”

Col. Flaherty asked the chaplains to offer only nondenominational prayers at public events, such as trooper graduations and annual memorial services. He said he was acting in response to a recent 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that dealt with sectarian prayers offered at meetings of the Fredericksburg City Council.

He said chaplains whose beliefs conflict with the request could opt out of participating in such events. Col. Flaherty also said chaplains officiating at funeral ceremonies or counseling individual employees and their families were not bound by the request.

State police chaplains are sworn department personnel who are on duty and paid while performing in that capacity.

“This is not a forced situation,” state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said. “For those who are uncomfortable with that, we wouldn’t put them in that position.”

However, Delegate Charles W. “Bill” Carrico Sr., a former state trooper, said he has spoken with some of the chaplains, who said the colonel’s request was not put in writing and was treated as an order.

The chaplains were told that “they cannot reference the name of Jesus Christ,” said Mr. Carrico, Grayson Republican. “That’s against their beliefs and against the dictates of their conscience.”

But Ms. Geller, who was not at the meeting, insisted that Col. Flaherty “never once came out and said you cannot invoke the name of Jesus Christ or anything.”

The issue of whether chaplains can pray in Jesus’ name is not new.

In late 2005, Navy Lt. Gordon Klingenschmitt, an evangelical Protestant chaplain, staged a hunger strike in front of the White House to protest the Navy’s policies of encouraging generic, nonsectarian prayers in public settings in place of petitions in the name of Jesus.

He was later court-martialed for appearing in uniform at what the Navy deemed a political protest and eventually discharged.

The controversy spurred several branches of the military to revise their guidelines on what chaplains can and cannot do. The Air Force, for instance, said it would not require its chaplains to offer nonsectarian prayers.

Ms. Geller said the colonel did not consult with Gov. Tim Kaine, Democrat, before issuing the request. She said the decision was “an internal matter” and “exclusively that of Colonel Flaherty.”

Kaine spokesman Gordon Hickey also said the governor was not involved in the decision, but thinks it’s “a reasonable action” because it allows denominational services for private events such as funerals.

“The governor has every confidence that Colonel Flaherty will direct the chaplains and all state troopers to adhere to the law,” Mr. Hickey said.

He also criticized Mr. Griffith for what he termed a “political attack” on the faith of Mr. Kaine, a Catholic.

Mr. Griffith on Wednesday blamed the Kaine administration for “prohibiting the troopers from referencing Jesus Christ in public prayers.”

“The last time I checked, the Catholic Church was in favor of Jesus Christ,” he said.

Mr. Carrico and Mr. Griffith have pledged to work to reverse Col. Flaherty’s decision. Mr. Carrico said he plans this week to begin an online petition and Web site, www.injesusname ipray.com.

Both lawmakers also said they are prepared to introduce legislation to reverse the decision when the General Assembly convenes in January.

“If the problem resolves itself, you might need to do protective legislation for the future,” Mr. Griffith said. “We’ll have to see how it plays out.”

• Julia Duin contributed to this article.

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