The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia on Tuesday offered pamphlets to state police chaplains warning that prayers invoking Jesus remain illegal at government events.
The ACLU’s request to distribute the information was immediately rejected by Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration, which last week overturned a year-and-a-half-old ban on sectarian prayers at police-sponsored events.
Citing several court cases, the pamphlet concludes that such prayers equate to “government speech” and “may be prohibited by the First Amendment altogether, but if they are allowed at all, they must be nonsectarian.”
“The ACLU, a private advocacy group, is asking a state agency to distribute to its employees a pamphlet which appears to contradict that agency’s policy,” said Tucker Martin, a spokesman for McDonnell. “Given they have posted this information to their Web site and issued a press release, we will assume that the information is already available to anyone who may wish to read it.”
While not explicitly threatening a lawsuit, the group has offered to represent a “a state trooper or anyone else whose constitutional rights are violated if a chaplain gives a sectarian prayer,” said Executive Director Kent Willis.
“It’s premature for us to aggressively pursue litigation,” Willis said. “If in the future, chaplains are offering sectarian prayers and someone comes to us with a complaint, then we’ll offer legal representation.”
A half dozen chaplains resigned when State Police Superintendent Col. Steven Flaherty put the policy in place in September 2008. Flahery based his decision on a ruling by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that a policy barring mention of Jesus during the opening prayer at Fredericksburg City Council meetings was constitutional. That case was among those cited in the ACLU pamphlet.
McDonnell’s decision to reverse Flaherty’s directive came after a lobbying push by conservative groups, including the Family Foundation. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has said allowing sectarian prayers at police events is constitutional.