Late Friday afternoon, the McAuliffe administration reversed itself and granted a permit allowing for a noon National Day of Prayer service on Capitol Square. An earlier permit for that time was denied – for the first time ever – forcing the service to 1 pm. Pressure from The Family Foundation and the ACLU brought the change.
Some have argued, “What’s the big deal? It’s only an hour?” And while that one hour may seem trivial, the message sent by the McAuliffe administration in denying the permit was clear – a lunch time "crowd" is more important than the long tradition of a prayer service. Once again religious activity and religious expression were marginalized. State workers and others who work downtown may only be able to get out of the office from noon to 1 pm, making the later start time impossible for them.
Beyond this incident, however, is something the ACLU is right to fight – the ever increasing limitations being placed on speech at the Capitol – by the Department of General Services. It has, in fact, become increasingly difficult to obtain permits and the place where you can meet has become more limited. There was even a policy change that prohibits the use of sound systems that were plugged into an electrical source, limiting them to battery operated.
Free speech should not be limited because it’s a burden to those who enjoy lunch at the Capitol or because it is difficult for DGS or the Capital Police. The burdens limiting the ability of groups to hold rallies and speak their massage need to be addressed. We join with the ACLU in calling for a change to these policies and look forward to a more open state capitol.
And while we’re at it, our frustration with the reluctance of many in the mainstream media in Richmond to report from a balanced perspective (or at all on some issues) has grown in recent years, so when a reporter bucks the trend we want to point it out. Kudos to Julian Walker at the Virginian Pilot (and to the Pilot editors) for his story about “no big deal.”