Recently, we were unsuccessful in convincing the Virginia Senate to overturn Governor Terry McAuliffe's veto of SB 555, which protected chaplains serving in the National Guard and Virginia Defense Force from government censorship of their sermons. Shortly after the governor announced his veto, the scholars at the Richmond Times Dispatch jumped into the fray supporting the governor because, the editors argued, any bill permitting "National Guard chaplains [to] make sectarian prayers" is comparable to ". . . a city council open[ing] a session with an explicitly Christian or Muslim invocation. ..." Looks like both Governor McAuliffe and the Times-Dispatch — and the 15 senators who changed their votes to sustain the veto — have egg on their faces. That's because there was big news from the United States Supreme Court yesterday, where in a 5-4 decision the High Court confirmed public prayer at government meetings is constitutional. In Town of Greece v. Galloway, it held that sectarian prayers are permitted at the opening of a city council meeting and it could be led by a chaplain.
The Supreme Court ruling makes Governor McAuliffe's decision to veto SB 555, and the 15 Senate Democrats who upheld it after voting for it during the legislative session, seem even more foolish and irrational than at the time — not to mention the learned editors and self-styled libertarians at the Times-Dispatch. Governor McAuliffe claimed that the veto was necessary for National Guard and VDF members to "not be subjected to sectarian proselytizing" and made an even more ludicrous claim that he was protecting religious freedom by permitting the government censure of a chaplain's sermon.
While the Supreme Court's decision was focused on prayer at local government meetings, it eloquently dispelled Governor McAuliffe's reasoning in its decision. The High Court held:
Our government is prohibited from prescribing prayers to be recited in our public institutions in order to promote a preferred system of belief or code of moral behavior. Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 430 (1962). It would be but a few steps removed from that prohibition for legislatures to require chaplains to redact the religious content from their message in order to make it acceptable for the public sphere. Government may not mandate a civic religion that stifles any but the most generic reference to the sacred any more than it may prescribe a religious orthodoxy. See Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 590 (1992) ("The suggestion that government may establish an official or civic religion with more specific creeds strikes us as a contradiction that cannot be accepted."); Schempp, 374 U.S., at 306 (Goldberg, J., concurring) (arguing that "untutored devotion to the concept of neutrality" must not lead to "a brooding and pervasive devotion to the secular."). [Emphasis added]
In other words, Governor McAuliffe's desire to permit censorship of a chaplain's sermon was part of an effort to establish a civic religion — one void of religious specificity. The Supreme Court made it clear that, just as it would be improper for government to prescribe the prayer to "promote a preferred system of belief," so is it prohibited from "require[ing] chaplains to redact the religious content form their message in order to make it acceptable for the public sphere."
By vetoing SB 555, Governor McAuliffe endorsed the ACLU's argument that government could censor the speech of chaplains. The Supreme Court clearly held that type of censorship Governor McAuliffe and the ACLU endorsed was unacceptable because it essentially establishes a "civic religion" that is just as unacceptable as if government "prescribe[d] a religious orthodoxy."
The Supreme Court determined that the content of an individual prayer cannot be challenged. In other words, it is not for the governor, the Times-Dispatch or the ACLU to challenge the content of a specific religious prayer at a public meeting.
This is a significant victory for religious liberty and recognition that public expression of faith has long been part of the fabric of our great country. It should give pause to those who try to remove public expressions of faith from our nation.