Sectarian Prayers Delivered at State Police Function Threaten Religious Liberty, Violate Court Rulings

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
May 21, 2010 12:00 am

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Unconstitutional invocation and benediction result from Governor’s removal of policy requiring police chaplains to offer only nonsectarian prayers at departmental events


Chesterfield County, VA — The ACLU of Virginia has learned that earlier today state police chaplains opened and closed a police-sponsored event with sectarian Christian prayers. The chaplains’ actions directly violate rulings of U.S. Supreme Court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals requiring formal prayers at government-sponsored events to be broad, universal utterances that do not favor any particular religion.

The annual memorial service for fallen police officers, which was held in Chesterfield County, was the first departmental gathering with prayers since Governor Robert F. McDonnell several weeks ago rescinded a two-year old policy mandating nonsectarian prayers at such events

“We are disappointed, but not surprised,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “Governor McDonnell not only wiped out the policy requiring nonsectarian prayers, but he practically pleaded with police chaplains to start offering sectarian prayers.”

State Police Superintendent Col. W. Steven Flaherty instituted the original policy requiring nonsectarian prayers in 2008 after the Fourth Circuit upheld a similar policy requiring nonsectarian prayers at Fredericksburg City Council meetings. In its decision in Turner v. Fredericksburg, the Fourth Circuit relied on Supreme Court precedents holding that prayers delivered on behalf of the government must not favor any one religion over others.

After McDonnell rescinded the 2008 policy, the ACLU of Virginia asked Flaherty to distribute to police chaplains pamphlets explaining the court precedents on prayers at government events. The ACLU maintains that whether or not a policy is in place, chaplains are still required to follow the rulings of the federal courts.

“What happened today was, without a doubt, a constitutional violation,” added Willis, “and Virginia is now vulnerable to a lawsuit. Not just anyone can file such a suit, but if there is a state trooper out there who understands why it is important for the government not to play favorites when it comes to religion, all he or she needs to do is pick up the phone and call us.”

The Supreme Court has ruled that in limited circumstances the government may offer prayers without violating separation of church and state. But such prayers must be nonsectarian in order to avoid religious favoritism by the government. Exceptions have been made for military personnel and incarcerated persons, who sometimes have no choice but to use government agents for religious services or ministerial consultations.

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