New rule not seen as blessing

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Thou shalt not mention specific deities in public prayers.

That command was handed down recently to Virginia State Police troopers who work as chaplains, prompting several to resign the religious part of their jobs because they are forbidden to mention a particular god by name.

Republican legislators blasted the policy, marking the latest flare-up in the debate over how much religion is appropriate in government.

Del. Charles W. "Bill" Carrico Sr., R-Grayson, declared the decision an "attack on Christianity" and is leading a campaign to have it reversed.

"Censoring what these chaplains can say is a violation of their First Amendment right to freedom of expression," said Carrico, a former state trooper who plans legislation to undo the restriction if it isn't rescinded.

Col. W. Steven Flaherty, the State Police superintendent, earlier this month had instructed his department's 17 chaplains to abide by a recent federal court decision upholding the constitutionality of nonsectarian prayers at government functions. At public functions, officers are permitted to use only nondenominational prayers.

In protest, six of the chaplains resigned those duties.

Flaherty cited the court decision - the case involved a challenge to a Fredericksburg City Council rule requiring nondenominational prayers prior to public meetings - in a written statement about the new policy.

"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," Flaherty said.

It also noted that the restriction applies only to sanctioned government events, not private functions at which a chaplain is asked to preside.

State Police have had a chaplain program since 1979. It is voluntary and open to employees who meet participation guidelines.

Trained in ministry, chaplains may provide spiritual guidance and counseling to employees and their families. They also can give invocations and benedictions at department ceremonies.

One of the six chaplains who resigned that post, 13-year trooper Rex Carter, said his faith had compelled him to conduct religion-related duties.

"There were several of us who felt that because of our convictions... about what the Bible says, we couldn't agree to go along with a generic prayer policy," said Carter, who works in Southwest Virginia.

Republicans weren't as judicious in their response.

A written statement issued by the office of House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, attacked the decision and accused Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's administration of banning "references to Jesus Christ."

Firing back, Kaine spokesman Gordon Hickey said the decision was made exclusively by Flaherty but is supported by the governor.

"Gov. Kaine is a man of faith and has dedicated his life to that service," Hickey said.

University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias praised Flaherty for responding in a "dispassionate, fair way" to the court ruling. He called the State Police policy "a perfectly appropriate reading" of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in the Fredericksburg case.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an advocacy group, supports the policy, but officials there also wondered whether it goes far enough.

"There's a fair amount of case law that says you can't include prayer at public events," said Ayesha Khan, the group's legal director. "But certainly if you do include them, they should be nondenominational."

Chris Freund of The Family Foundation expressed "tremendous concern" about "a person of faith being silenced in any way."

Freund, a vice president with the Richmond-based conservative advocacy group, said legal action seeking to overturn the policy is possible.