- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 5, 2010

One week after Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell restored the right of state police chaplains to pray in Jesus’ name at public functions, only one of the six chaplains who resigned in protest two years ago has agreed to return.

“I was pleased and extremely excited the governor wanted this policy reversed,” said State Trooper Rex Carter, who has requested reinstatement to the volunteer post. “It allows us to move forward and to put this issue behind us.”

But First Sgt. Mike Honeker, who serves in the southwestern part of the state along with Trooper Carter, says he will not return to the chaplain program for now.

“This policy being changed really doesn’t affect the greater issue of religious freedom in America,” he said. “When prayer is restricted or suppressed at a town council, board of supervisors meeting or even a high school basketball game, a person’s right to express their faith is restricted. That’s a big problem in our country right now.”

The sergeant, a 21-year veteran who also serves as pastor at the River of Life Church in Dublin, Va., says the other four chaplains — who have kept their names out of the media — apparently are also undecided on whether to return to the program.

On April 28, state police superintendent Col. Steven Flaherty informed the six men — plus several other chaplains — that the governor had lifted the ban. Col. Flaherty imposed it in September 2008 after the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that invocations during city council meetings are government speech.

The superintendent applied that ruling to prayers made by police chaplains at official public departmental events. His decision received flak from Christian leaders around the state and lawmakers who felt the ruling violated the First Amendment. However, attempts to create a state law allowing chaplains to pray as they wish failed in the Virginia State Assembly in 2009 and 2010.

Don Blake, chairman of the Virginia Christian Alliance, said the remaining five chaplains are leery of returning in case Gov. McDonnell’s order is changed by a successor.

“The General Assembly should address this so another governor can’t change this on a whim,” Mr. Blake said. “These men were so discouraged that a governor and the superintendent of police could tell them how to pray. I think some of these guys took it pretty hard.”

Mr. Blake was part of a coalition that delivered 15,000 individual petitions supporting the change in policy to the governor on Monday. So was former Capt. Gordon James Klingenschmitt, a U.S. naval chaplain until he was ejected for appearing in uniform — without official permission — at a March 2006 demonstration in front of the White House.

“When I learned that 76 percent of Virginia voters want to let chaplains pray in Jesus’ name, I faxed voter guides on this issue four months before the election to 2,300 Virginia pastors,” Mr. Klingenschmitt said, “showing how [Democratic nominee] Creigh Deeds voted against Jesus prayers and Bob McDonnell would defend Jesus prayers if elected.

“Not only did the pastors turn out their people for a McDonnell landslide because of this issue, we also got rid of six delegates who voted against Jesus prayers. When the government stamps out Jesus’ name, He spreads like a revival wildfire among the people.”

However, the Baptist Joint Committee for Public Affairs called the governor’s decision “legally reckless” and said the policy change “invites lawsuits.”

• Julia Duin can be reached at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

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