September 27, 2008

Prayer Policy Creates a Spat

By Michael Sluss [email protected] (804) 697-1585

A Virginia State Police policy affecting prayers by department chaplains has created another political dust-up between House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, and Gov. Tim Kaine.

Democrats accused Griffith of attacking Kaine's faith Thursday, one day after Griffith criticized the administration over the state police policy. Kaine, a Democrat, added that a Republican news release on the issue "contained a great deal of misinformation."

The squabble revolves around a directive from the state police superintendent requiring volunteer chaplains to deliver nondenominational prayers at department-sanctioned public events. Six of 17 troopers who participate in the state police's chaplaincy program have resigned their volunteer duties in protest.

In a news release issued Wednesday, Griffith went after Kaine, saying: "For those of us who understand the importance of religion in American life and value the free expression as one of our essential rights, the Kaine administration's directive is disappointing."

Kaine is a Roman Catholic who served as a missionary in Honduras and speaks often about the importance of faith in his life. Democrats and Kaine aides said Griffith's comments were intended to question the governor's devotion.

Democrats organized a conference call in which legislators and pastors chided Griffith.

"I think it's the lowest form of politics," said former Roanoke mayor Nelson Harris, the pastor at Virginia Heights Baptist Church. "I think it's quite sad as a political tactic."

Griffith insisted he was not impugning the governor's faith. But he did not back down from criticizing the policy.

"I think the position is difficult for the Kaine administration to defend," Griffith said. "The only position they can come back with was that it's a personal attack. It was not a personal attack.

"That policy has a negative impact on how people in Virginia view their government and the Kaine administration," Griffith said. "Clearly it was an attack, but it was not an attack on his faith."

Virginia State Police Superintendent Col. Steve Flaherty asked volunteer chaplains to offer nondenominational prayers at department- sanctioned events such as trooper graduations and an annual memorial service. The policy does not apply to private ceremonies such as funerals or when counseling fellow employees and victim families,

Flaherty said he acted in response to a July ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court ruled that a Fredericksburg City Council member who is also a minister could not pray "in Jesus' name" during an invocation that opens council meetings because the invocation is government speech.

Del. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson County, a retired state trooper, said that he will push to overturn the policy, which he called "an attack on Christianity."

In a letter to Griffith, Kaine said his office gave no directive to the state police and that Flaherty consulted with the attorney general's office. He defended Flaherty, saying the department policy "is within the bounds of the law ... while respecting the individual faith traditions of all state troopers."

Kaine added that he had "tremendous respect for chaplains' vocations and desire to serve."

"I also have tremendous respect for those who are called into service by a faith tradition different from my own. I have respect for the laws and traditions of our Commonwealth and our nation that guarantee free practice of religion, demand tolerance, and remind us that no one should be discriminated against or made to feel out of place because of their beliefs."

Griffith said in response: "The problem is these chaplains feel out of place. The policy does exactly what he says he doesn't want to do."

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