ACLU Says House Legislation Allowing Government-Sanctioned Sectarian Prayers Threatens Religious Equality

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
January 28, 2010 12:00 am

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Bill would reverse Police policy preventing official prayers from favoring any one religion.

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Richmond, VA – The ACLU of Virginia has asked members of a House of Delegates committee to reject a bill that permits sectarian prayers at events sponsored by the State Police. In a memo delivered today to members of the Militia, Police, and Public Safety Committee, the civil liberties organization says it is prepared to challenge the bill in court should it become law and lead to unconstitutional prayers.

HB 9, introduced by Delegate Charles W. Carrico, Sr., prevents the Superintendent of State Police from regulating the content of prayers offered by its chaplains at police-sponsored events. The bill would reverse a State Police policy requiring police chaplains to offer only nonsectarian prayers at police-sponsored events.

HB 9 is on the docket for the next House Committee on Militia, Police, and Public Safety meeting, which meets tomorrow at 8:30 a.m.

Del. Carrico introduced a nearly identical bill in 2009. HB 2314 passed the House 66-30, but was voted down by the Senate Courts of Justice Committee on a close 8-7 vote. HB 9 has much of the same language as last year’s bill, but adds a requirement that disclaimers indicating that the prayers are not endorsed by the State Police be printed on event programs.

“Delegate Carrico is trying to circumvent federal court rulings that protect religious freedom by preventing the government from favoring one religion over others,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “Individuals speaking as individuals are always free to express their religious beliefs, but when a formal prayer is offered by a state official at a state event, that person must present the government’s view of religion, which is that all religions are equal.”

Carrico’s bill is a reaction to Turner v. Fredericksburg, a case in which the Supreme Court allowed to stand a 2008 Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision holding that Fredericksburg City Council had the authority to prevent one of its members from opening council meetings with sectarian prayers. The Fourth Circuit based its decision on an earlier Supreme Court case upholding the right to open legislative meetings with prayer, but only if the prayers are nonsectarian. After the Fourth Circuit’s ruling, State Police Col. Stephen Flaherty ordered police chaplains to give only nonsectarian prayers at events sponsored by the State Police.

The ACLU’s memo to legislators may be found online at: www.acluva.org

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