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What Would Jefferson Do?
Prayer Bill Roils Richmond

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.

Flaherty, in a written statement, said he thought that using generic prayers would keep the agency from running afoul of a ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit involving prayer at City Council meetings in Fredericksburg.

The six dissident chaplains, who remain on the force, said they believed it would violate their faith to follow a policy that prohibited them from saying "in Jesus' name" or "Christ" in their prayers.

"How would a Jewish person or a Buddhist feel if they couldn't pray the way they wanted to?" said Trooper Rex Carter, a 13-year veteran of the force who resigned his chaplaincy.

Soon after the chaplains resigned, Republicans seized on the issue and demanded that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat who served as a Roman Catholic missionary in Latin America, rescind the state police directive. Although Kaine took pains to say he had never asked for the directive, he also vowed to veto any such bill.

McDonnell stepped out in support of the measure. Spokesman J. Tucker Martin called McDonnell "a vigorous supporter of religious liberty and the right of clergy, rabbis and other religious officials to freely practice their faith."

In response to a Democratic senator's request, McDonnell's office also drafted a letter saying the proposal appears to be constitutional.

Then, as debate grew heated on the House floor, Del. Lionel Spruill made some remarks about the daily prayers in the General Assembly that he later said he regretted.

"From time to time, we have certain people who come here, certain people who pray here, and depending on who it is, I'll walk out that door, especially those in the Muslim faith I don't care too much about," said Spruill (D-Chesapeake). Spruill, who is a paid consultant for Moran, apologized the next day.

The broader issue of prayer at schools and public events has special resonance in Virginia, where the oldest functioning legislature in the Western Hemisphere has opened its legislative sessions with prayer since the days of the House of Burgesses. But it was also there that the concepts of religious freedom and separation of church and state were born.

When the House opened its first session this year, the man giving the invocation was Hashmel C. Turner Jr., associate minister of First Baptist Church of Love. Turner, a City Council member, had been banned from offering prayers at Fredericksburg City Council meetings long before the city's case wound up in federal court. He got a warm welcome.

"When I came and did the opening prayer, there was no problem as I closed it out in the name of Jesus Christ," he said.

Researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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