Policing prayer

prayersforallSix of 17 chaplains Virginia State Police chaplains have resigned because of new restrictions on prayer. The state police superintendent ordered them to offer only non-denominational prayers at public events. All stories about movement on First Amendment protections are big and the Washington-area papers made sure to cover it. Here's a bit from the Washington Times:

To "require those troopers to disregard their own faith while serving violates their First Amendment rights and prevents them from serving effectively as chaplains," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican. "These men had little choice but to resign."

Col. [Steven Flaherty, the State Police superintendent,] asked the chaplains to offer only nondenominational prayers at public events, such as trooper graduations and annual memorial services. He said he was acting in response to a recent 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that dealt with sectarian prayers offered at meetings of the Fredericksburg City Council.

Both papers emphasized the political angle to this story but the Washington Post story actually led with partisan politics, as if that's the most important angle:

Six Virginia State Police troopers have resigned their voluntary positions as chaplains following the implementation of a policy that bans them from referring to Jesus Christ in public prayers.

House Republicans blasted Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) for the directive Wednesday, but Kaine's office said the police superintendent issued the directive.

I know that the real focus of all journalism is politics (yawn), but couldn't we begin with a discussion of the theological implications here? Why did these chaplains feel compelled to quit? Are some religious groups more affected by this order than others? Why is that? What do First Amendment scholars have to say about this order?

Both stories have helpful perspective and context, about the trooper history and other chaplain controversies.

Flaherty said he made the order in response to a recent federal appeals court ruling that a Fredericksburg City Council member may not pray "in Jesus's name" during council meetings because the opening invocation is government speech. Neither story explored that ruling, which is terribly fascinating. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor sat in on the decision. The case involved the implementation of a policy that all invocations at city council meetings must be generic and non-sectarian. A council member argued that the government doesn't have the right to dictate the content of official prayers and can't require non-sectarian prayers.

O'Connor said that since the government wasn't forcing anyone to pray against their conscience but merely offering them the opportunity to pray on behalf of the government, First Amendment rights weren't violated. If the government wants official prayers that don't mention Jesus, the council member can decline to pray "on behalf" of the government, she wrote. And he can pray according to his own conscience on his own time.

This is just a fascinating decision. For one thing, it certainly favors people who already pray in a non-sectarian or openly interfaith manner. It's basically only a problem for religious adherents who make exclusive truth claims or whose religious traditions require praying in Jesus' name or in the name of the complete Trinity. Many Eastern Orthodox bishops would insist on the latter, for instance.

In that sense, a decision such as this could be seen as favoring one type of religious group over another. Is that a problem? Is that an interesting discussion for a newspaper article? Is it, perhaps, more interesting than whether Republicans and Democrats disagree on the matter? I think so. Hopefully future articles on this topic will pay more attention to the First Amendment implications.

Please respect our Commenting Policy