Dozens of prominent Christian leaders in Virginia have written Gov. Timothy Kaine requesting a change in the state policy that bans “in Jesus name” from state police chaplains’ prayers and seeking reinstatement for the six chaplains who had to resign over the issue.
“This could impact the national election, since Virginia is such a close race,” said former Navy Chaplain Gordon Klingenschmitt, who was dismissed from the military over the same issue but later won a battle in Congress creating a freedom for other chaplains to pray as their conscience dictates.
“These 86 pastors pledged to mobilize their people to vote accordingly, so the courage of these six police chaplains who were forced to resign because they prayed ‘in Jesus name’ could turn America’s head on November 4th,” Klingenschmitt said.
The pastors now are awaiting a response from the governor.
Their letter states, “By defending religious discrimination, you endorse anti-Christian persecution, and prohibit
free speech, literally censoring the word ‘Jesus’ as illegal speech by chaplains. Is this your intention? It has been your action.”
According to Bishop Council Nedd, chief of the group called In God We Trust USA, the ban was issued by state police Col. W. Steven Flaherty to chaplains just weeks ago. The dispute became public through the work of Charles W. Carrico Sr., a member of Virginia’s House of Delegates who is a former trooper.
“In God We Trust will assist Delegate Carrico and oppose this policy with every means at our disposal,” said Nedd. “Our supporters in Virginia are absolutely furious that the Commonwealth’s government would rather its state troopers go without chaplains than risk someone being offended by a Christian chaplain invoking the name of Jesus Christ.”
The group’s report said there had been no complaints about any of the prayers by chaplains; it was simply a ban adopted “to prevent any possible future lawsuits.”
The action, however, violates their First Amendment rights and prevents the chaplains “from serving effectively,” said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith. “These men had little choice but to resign.”
Flaherty reported he was acting on an appeals court ruling dealing with prayers at the Fredericksburg City council, and his rule allowed only “nondenominational” prayers at public events.
He said those who object could opt out.
“This is not a forced situation,” a spokeswoman for the state law enforcement agency said. “We wouldn’t put them in that position.”
But Klingenschmitt, whose battle with the military over his use of the phrase remains in court where he’s seeking reinstatement, said he “cannot believe we live in a society where government officials literally dictate the content of a chaplain’s prayers and dare to punish or exclude chaplains who pray ‘in Jesus name.’”
State officials said they were worried about future lawsuits because of an appeals court opinion written by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who said discriminating against anyone who prays “in Jesus name” among officials rotating responsibilities to open city meetings is fair and reasonable.
Her reasoning left Klingenschmitt wondering how that conclusion had been reached.
That dispute focused on Rev. Hashmel Turner, a resident of Fredericksburg, Va., and a member of the town council, who was a part of a rotation of council members who prayed at the council meetings. He ended his prayers “in Jesus name.”
That phrase, however, offended a listener, who prompted the involvement of several activist groups that threatened a lawsuit if the elected Christian council member continued to be allowed to pray “in Jesus name.”
The city then adopted a non-sectarian prayer requirement, imposing a ban on any reference to “Jesus.”
O’Connor wrote: “The restriction that prayers be nonsectarian in nature is designed to make the prayers accessible to people who come from a variety of backgrounds, not to exclude or disparage a particular faith.”
Klingenschmitt noted, “Ironically, she admitted Turner was excluded from participating solely because of the Christian content of his prayer. The Fredericksburg government violated everybody’s rights by establishing a nonsectarian religion, and requiring all prayers conform, or face punishment of exclusion.”
The pastors’ letter notes that the opinion actually “didn’t universalize any ban on Jesus-prayers, rather it gave the government three options.”
The options included a nonsectarian prayer policy, a rotating prayer policy or appointing chaplains to pray as their own faith dictates, the letter said.