This morning the Senate Courts of Justice Committee defeated HB 2314 patroned by Delegate Bill Carrico (R-5, Galax). This bill would have restored to the Commonwealth's State Trooper chaplains the religious liberty right to pray according to the dictates of their conscience. This restoration of freedom is necessary after State Police Superintendent Stephen Flaherty issued an administrative order that chaplains can no longer pray "in the name of Jesus." This decision has been strongly supported by Governor Kaine's administration despite the pursuant resignations of six chaplains.
In a long and very contentious meeting, HB 2314 was the final bill to be heard. Testimony was offered on both sides. (Video of the debate will be available here tomorrow.) Joining The Family Foundation in speaking in support of the bill was the state Solicitor General Steve McCullough, the Rev. Sherylann Bragton of City of Love Ministries and Dr. Jack Knapp of the Virginia Assembly of Independent Baptists. In opposition to the bill were the ACLU, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Interfaith Center for Public Policy and a Jewish police chaplain from northern Virginia.
Opponents used their typical arguments, such as stating that in order to minister to all people one must strip any religious references out of their prayers. The police chaplain stated, "When I don my police uniform I am no longer representing my congregation as a Jewish clergy. Instead I am representing the government."
While he may choose to leave his particular faith at the door when he ministers to others, to have the state require that one minister in this way is not acceptable. Delegate Carrico continued to remind the committee that the state police policy of censorship was issued not as the result of a single complaint of proselytizing but instead out of an ideological agenda.
Leading the charge to defeat the bill was Senator Tommy Norment (R-3, Williamsburg). Instead of outright voting against the bill, Senator Norment chose to do something even more detrimental to the effort being waged by those who seek to uphold First Amendment freedoms — he offered amendments accepted by a majority of the committee in which he inserted "nonsectarian" before each mention of prayer in the bill. As Senator Ken Cuccinelli (R-37, Fairfax) pointed out to the committee and myriad of reporters following this hearing, a plain reading of this new language indicated that the amended bill would enshrine the state superintendent's policy into perpetuity. It was an amendment intended to kill the entire purpose of the bill.
Even after the killer amendment was accepted, the bill died by a majority vote. If you are interested to know where people really stood on this bill, those who voted against the Norment amendment actually support the religious liberty rights upon which this nation was founded: Senators Ken Cuccinelli, Mark Obenshain (R-26, Harrisonburg), Ryan McDougle (R-4, Hanover), Robert Hurt (R-19, Chatham) and Roscoe Reynolds (D-20, Martinsville).
Despite the testimony of opponents to this legislation the facts are clear — neither the Constitution nor the Courts of the United States require or compel a faithless, non-religious, nonsectarian prayer at government events. Sadly, as is often the case for some members of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, the facts and the law are but a distasteful distraction.
Unfortunately, for six state police chaplains, this decision renders meaningless the protection of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia, which states:
"That all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."