ACLU Says Government Prayer Bills Violate Religious Freedom

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
January 29, 2009 12:00 am

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Two Bills in the Virginia General Assembly Allow Unconstitutional Sectarian Prayers at Government Events


Richmond, VA – Virginia legislators are considering two bills that permit sectarian prayers at government events, in violation of U.S. Supreme Court and Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals legal precedents. The ACLU is asking legislators to reject HB 2314 and SB 1072 and is prepared to mount a legal challenge should either become law and lead to government prayers that endorse a particular religion.

“The legislators who introduced theses bills seem to think they are supporting religious freedom, when they are actually doing the opposite,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director. “These bills have nothing to do with protecting the right of individuals to practice their religion, but instead allow the government to engage in religious favoritism by offering sectarian prayers at its events. That goes against everything our principles of religious equality and liberty stand for.”

HB 2314, introduced by Delegate Charles W. Carrico, Sr., prevents the Superintendent of State Police from regulating the religious content of prayers offered by its chaplains at police-sponsored events. Carrico’s bill would reverse a State Police policy, adopted last year, requiring police chaplains to offer only nonsectarian prayers at police-sponsored events.

SB 1072, introduced by Senator Stephen H. Martin, addresses prayers at any public event sanctioned by government agencies. It prohibits any agency from regulating the religious content of prayers unless the prayer advances or disparages a particular religion. (Note: The ACLU objects to SB 1072 both because it implies that government prayers are allowed at all government events, which is not supported by case law, and because it does not explicitly prohibit sectarian prayers.)

HB 2314 cleared the House Militia, Police, and Public Safety Subcommittee #2 this morning. SB 1072 will be heard by the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.

Both bills are apparently a reaction to a Virginia lawsuit recently addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court. In that case, Turner v. Fredericksburg, the Supreme Court allowed to stand a 2008 Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision holding that Fredericksburg City Council had the authority to prevent one of its members from opening council meetings with sectarian prayers. The Fourth Circuit had based its decision on an earlier Supreme Court case upholding the right to open legislative meetings with prayer, but only if the prayers are nonsectarian.

The ACLU’s memos to legislators may be found online at

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