ACLU Asks Superintendent of State Police to Distribute Pamphlets on Prayers at Departmental Events

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
May 4, 2010 12:00 am

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Religious liberty protected by prohibiting government prayers that favor one religion


Richmond, VA — The ACLU of Virginia is providing State Police Superintendent Col. W. Steven Flaherty with pamphlets offering a description of the legal status of prayers at government events. The ACLU is asking Flaherty to distribute the pamphlet to all police chaplains to make it clear that they may deliver only nonsectarian prayers at department-sponsored events.

The ACLU’s request comes several days after Governor Robert F. McDonnell announced that the Superintendent had rescinded a two-year-old policy requiring police chaplains to deliver only nonsectarian prayers at government-sponsored events. McDonnell’s comments accompanying the announcement of the policy’s rescission made it clear that he endorses sectarian prayers at such events, even though they are unconstitutional.

“Our simple message to the Superintendent and to police chaplains is to follow the law, regardless of whether or not a prayer policy is in place,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “Our pamphlet does more than just state the bottom line that official prayers at government events must be nonsectarian. It also explains to chaplains how the courts came to their decisions leading to current state of the law.”

The ACLU is prepared to offer legal representation if impermissible prayers are offered by police chaplains, and a plaintiff steps forward.

The original policy banning sectarian prayers was instituted by Flaherty in 2008, shortly after the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a similar policy requiring only nonsectarian prayers at the opening of Fredericksburg City Council meetings. In its decision on the Fredericksburg policy, the Fourth Circuit relied on Supreme Court precedents holding that prayers delivered on behalf of the government must not favor one religion over others.

Last week, the Family Foundation of Virginia and the Virginia Christian Alliance asked McDonnell to rescind the policy as part of a campaign promise.

Since the policy’s adoption, legislators have twice attempted to pass a law prohibiting the Police Superintendent from regulating the content of prayers offered by chaplains at official functions. In 2009 a bill sponsored by Delegate Charles W. Carrico, Sr. passed the House of Delegates but was later voted down in the Senate. Carrico’s 2010 version of the bill was left in committee with no action taken.

A copy of the letter and the pamphlet faxed and mailed today to Flaherty follows.

May 4, 2010

Colonel W. Steven Flaherty
Virginia State Police Superintendent
P.O. Box 27472
Richmond, VA 23261

RE: Prayers by Police Chaplains at Departmental Events

Dear Col. Flaherty:

In light of the recent decision to rescind the departmental policy requiring nonsectarian prayers at police functions, I am writing to request that you distribute to all Virginia state police chaplains the enclosed pamphlet, Prayer by Virginia State Police Chaplains at Department-Sanctioned Events.

As you know, whether or not the Department has a policy on prayers, all chaplains are required to follow the law. Written by ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca K. Glenberg, our pamphlet is a clear, straightforward explanation of the law on official prayers at government events.

In 2008, when you first established the now-rescinded policy, the obligation of police chaplains to offer only nonsectarian prayers at Department events was clear to you and your legal advisors. The law has not changed since that time.

Although some organizations have openly questioned the requirement that government prayers be nonsectarian – and they have apparently convinced the Governor to agree – these claims are unsubstantiated and in conflict with legitimate legal analyses. For this reason, I invite you to share our pamphlet with independent law experts before distributing it.

A sufficient number of copies of the pamphlet should be enclosed for your immediate purposes. If you would like additional copies for chaplains or any other Department employees, please feel free to contact me.

I thank you for your attention. Please feel free to contact me at or 804-644-8080.


Kent Willis
Executive Director

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