Carrico seeking prayer ban reversal

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By Ben Bomberger, Reporter

RICHMOND — As state legislators prepare for the 2010 General Assembly, a local delegate has once again renewed his commitment to overturn an administrative order requiring Virginia State Police chaplains to deliver non-denominational prayers at official events.

Delegate Bill Carrico (R-Grayson), a retired state trooper, has introduced House Bill No. 9 for the upcoming General Assembly, which is set to begin Jan. 13 — an identical bill to the one seen in the Senate's court committee that died by one vote last year.

The bill would amend the Code of Virginia by adding a section numbered 52-6.2, relating to the State Police Volunteer Chaplaincy Program and is in reaction to the State Police Superintendent W. Steven Flaherty's 2008 order requiring chaplains to deliver non-sectarian prayers at government-sanctioned events.

Carrico introduced the bill last year, which was killed on an 8-7 party-line vote in the Senate Courts of Justice committee after nearly an hour of debate.

Flaherty's policy was adopted in response to a federal court ruling about prayers at government functions.

"Over the years, the Virginia State Police has put forth great effort to achieve a diversified employee workforce among its sworn and civilian personnel to reflect the population of the Commonwealth and those we are committed to serve," Flaherty said in a press release dated Dec. 17, 2009. "As a result, the Department recognizes the importance as a state government agency to be inclusive and respectful of the varied ethnicities, cultures and beliefs of our employees, their families and citizens at-large."

The Chaplaincy Program was established in 1979 with the purpose of enabling employees of the department trained in ministry to provide employees and their families with spiritual counseling and guidance according to their needs and requests.

"The superintendent continues to support and appreciates the dedication and efforts of our department chaplains who provide such a valuable service to our employees and citizens," the release said.

In protest to the action in 2008, six of 17 troopers who serve as chaplains resigned the religious portions of their duties.

Carrico vowed to introduce similar legislation this year. “The Christian faith has been persecuted in this country for too long, and people are tired of it."

Carrico told The Gazette on Monday that he feels everybody had a better understanding of the bill this year and he simply wants to give the troopers the right to be able to pray as they want.

He added that newly elected Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, a Republican, may be a little more supportive of his concerns and could persuade the Virginia Senate to give the bill a fair hearing and move it forward.

Carrico got involved in the process after having several chaplains of the VSP express that they felt they were being discriminated against that one religion in particular was targeted.

"There was never a complaint made," Carrico said of the program that has been in place for more than 30 years. "There was no reason for them to go forward with this decision."

The ruling meant that all chaplains were to pray what Carrico said was a "generic prayer" and that they will not be allowed to pray in the name of Jesus or end a prayer in Christ's name.

"No other religious target was made," Carrico said on Monday. "I felt it was very unconstitutional the decision that they made."

He added that the chaplains were "very instrumental" during the recovering days of the shooting at Virginia Tech in 2006 and that he felt this programs was vital to the department.

"I wanted to do something to protect the integrity of that program and the guys who volunteer their time to do it," he said.

After receiving a lot of publicity last year, Carrico said he received thousands of e-mails asking that he not give up on the fight.

"Therefore I vowed that I'd be back with it next year, and here I am," he said. "I think it's a clear violation of their constitutional rights."

He added that it has become politically incorrect for a person to express their beliefs and that people just use that as a tool to prevent anyone from expressing themselves.

"It's got to stop somewhere," he said. "I'll continue to fight. Successful or not, I'm not going to give up on it."

The bill calls for the volunteer chaplains to be respectful and sensitive to the religious beliefs of the employees and their families, but adds that the "activities and services of each volunteer chaplain shall be provided in his individual capacity and in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience."

It continues to read that no department official "shall prescribe, proscribe, regulate, limit, or otherwise dictate the religious content of the volunteer chaplains' expressions of religious beliefs, prayers, invocations, benedictions, spiritual counseling or spiritual guidance."

The bill additionally states that, should a volunteer chaplain be called upon to provide an invocation or benediction at a department-sanctioned event or ceremony, a disclaimer should be included on the agenda or program to acknowledge that the invocation or benediction is the "voluntary offering of an individual and that the views or beliefs expressed by such individual have not been previously reviewed, approved, sanctioned, or endorsed by the Department."

State Police Spokeswoman Corinne Geller told The Gazette that in 2009 the order applied to only one event — the annual Memorial Service in May held at the VSP gymnasium in Richmond.

She added that if and when the department has a trooper graduation, it would apply then as well.

"For funerals, personal ministry, one-on-one, etc., the directive does not apply," Geller continued.

Landmark News Service

contributed to this report.