What Would Jefferson Do?

Del. Charles W. Carrico Sr. (R-Grayson) says the state shouldn't require a chaplain to violate his faith.
Del. Charles W. Carrico Sr. (R-Grayson) says the state shouldn't require a chaplain to violate his faith. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)
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By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 2009

RICHMOND, Feb. 18 -- As a former Virginia state trooper who has visited horrific crime scenes and notified families of the death of a loved one, Charles W. Carrico Sr. learned the value of prayer and turned to it many times, he says.

So Carrico, who now represents Grayson County as a member of the House of Delegates, said he felt he had to act after Virginia State Police chaplains were ordered last summer to give only generic prayers at public events, a ruling several interpreted as a ban on uttering "Jesus." Rather than comply, six of the agency's 17 chaplains resigned. Carrico wrote a bill to address their stance.

"As a Christian, I must pray to Jesus Christ," Carrico said. "I'm being told not to. Why should I even pray?"

Carrico has spent much of the 45-day General Assembly session waging an uphill battle for the bill, which would guarantee that state police chaplains can pray as they wish. He has enlisted support from a rabbi and Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, who is also a Republican candidate for governor.

Carrico's bill passed in the House, 66 to 30. A critical Senate committee vote is expected Friday.

"Faith is believing, and I'm believing," Carrico said of its chances.

This is not the first time the Virginia's General Assembly has waded into the First Amendment question of government-sponsored prayer. But this controversy over the separation of church and state seems certain to rile people on both sides, no matter what the legislature does.

The fray has already prompted a high-profile adviser to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brian Moran to apologize for saying he would consider walking out on a Muslim prayer delivered in the House chamber.

The ACLU of Virginia has threatened to sue if the bill becomes law -- and yet has also found itself in the ticklish position of defending the government's right to dictate what goes into a prayer uttered during official functions. Kent Willis, the executive director, acknowledged that the ACLU, under different circumstances, would fight for an individual's right to pray as he chooses.

"Maybe the worst part of all this is now you have the government deciding what's a proper prayer and what's not a proper prayer," Willis said.

The bill proposed by Republican lawmakers might even conflict with the written policies of the General Assembly. The House and the Senate begin their sessions with prayer, and the clerk for each chamber gives members of the clergy who participate guidelines on making an ecumenical prayer.

The controversy began last summer when the head of the Virginia State Police acted to avoid legal trouble. In the aftermath of a federal appeals court decision concerning public prayer, Virginia State Police Superintendent W. Steven Flaherty directed the chaplains, all of whom are Christian, to offer nonsectarian prayers at department-sanctioned events, such as memorial services and police academy graduations.

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