Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A state Senate committee voted Monday against a bill that would allow state police chaplains to pray in the name of Jesus Christ or other specific deities.

The bill by Delegate Charles W. Carrico, Grayson Republican, was rejected by a voice vote in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee. The House passed the bill 66-30 earlier this month.

The Senate committee first changed the bill to codify an administrative order that state police chaplains must deliver nondenominational prayers at official events. Six of the agency’s chaplains resigned after the order was given last year, prompting Mr. Carrico’s bill.

Mr, Carrico told the committee he would strike the bill rather than require nondenominational prayers, which he argued established a “no-God religion.”

Mr. Carrico said the troopers who volunteer as chaplains should not have to give up their religious freedom to serve and that they should be allowed to pray according to their conscience.

“They have rights just as much as you and I,” said Mr. Carrico, a retired state trooper.

Opponents of the bill argued that allowing state employees - who are dressed in uniform at a public event - to pray in Jesus’ name amounted to unconstitutional, state-sponsored religion.

Last year, state police Superintendent W. Steven Flaherty issued an order demanding the chaplains offer nondenominational prayers at department-sponsored public events such as trooper graduation ceremonies and memorial services. It did not apply to private events such as funerals or in their role as counselors to troopers or victims.

Mr. Flaherty issued the directive in response to a federal appeals court ruling that upheld a Fredericksburg City Council policy that banned opening council meetings with sectarian prayers.

The American Civil Liberties Union had threatened to sue if Mr. Carrico’s bill became law.

Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, also had suggested he would veto the bill if it made it to his desk. State employees, he said, should not proselytize on the taxpayers’ dime.

State Solicitor General Stephen McCullough testified that the bill met constitutional muster and that he thought the Attorney General’s Office could defend the sectarian prayers if forced to do so.

Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City Republican, amended the bill to allow only nonsectarian prayers, thus making Mr. Flaherty’s order a law. But Mr. Carrico said he would pull the bill before allowing that to happen, ending a nearly hourlong debate.

Michael Shochet, cantor of temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church and a volunteer chaplain coordinator for the Fairfax County Police Department, said he and other chaplains must recognize the difference between ministering to their congregations and being pastoral counselors for people of all faiths.

“When I don my police uniform, I am no longer representing my congregation as a Jewish clergy,” he said. “Instead, I am representing the government, and therefore the public is my congregation.”

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