Clergy denounces chaplain policy

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Echoing recent Republican criticism, about a dozen Christian clergy members in Virginia have denounced a new policy that instructs State Police troopers working as chaplains not to invoke specific deities in public prayers offered at government events.

The ministers, who claimed to be speaking on behalf of congregations and pastors across the state, called on Gov. Timothy M. Kaine to rescind the nonsectarian prayer policy, labeling it an affront to Christianity.

In recent days, six of 17 state troopers who also serve as chaplains resigned those duties — a volunteer part of their jobs — rather than give generic blessings.

Republican legislators were critical of the policy, among them Del. Bill Carrico of Grayson County, who called it an “attack on Christianity.”

If the governor does not relent, members of the faith community plan to hold a rally at the state Capitol on Nov. 1, former Navy chaplain Gordon Klingenschmitt said.

“There is no policy. They just gave a verbal order to these chaplains and they were forced with two choices: You disobey the orders of the police chief or you deny the name of Jesus Christ. Well, no wonder they resigned,” said Klingenschmitt, who was stationed at Norfolk Naval Station until being forced from the military last year.

During a 2006 court-martial proceeding, Klingenschmitt was convicted of disobeying an order by wearing his military uniform to a news conference about praying in Jesus’ name.

Virginia’s policy was announced last week by State Police Superintendent Col. W. Steven Flaherty, drawing harsh backlash from some Republican legislators but firm backing from the governor.

In a written statement explaining his rationale, Flaherty cited a recent federal court decision upholding the constitutionality of a government body requiring nonsectarian prayers at official forums.

Under the policy, chaplains remain free to pray as they see fit at non-government gatherings.

The lawsuit at the heart of the dispute was brought by Fredericksburg City Councilman Hashmel C. Turner Jr., an ordained minister who objected to a council rule that meeting-opening prayers be free of specific faith references.

In a July opinion, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the legality of the council regulation.

Though some frame this flap as a continuation of the running debate about the role of religion in government, Turner said it is a fight over the simple words “in the name of Jesus.”

Victoria Cobb, president of the Richmond-based Family Foundation, called Virginia’s response to the court ruling “anti-Christian hysteria.”

Other opponents have taken the fight online, encouraging people to visit the www.injesusnameipray.org Web site.

Kaine, a Roman Catholic who speaks openly about his faith, has said the policy does not target Christianity or other religions, but rather is an effort to be sensitive to all faiths.

Kaine spokesman Gordon Hickey said the governor’s position remains unchanged.