Policing prayer

prayersforallSix of 17 chaplains Virginia State Police chaplains have resigned because of new restrictions on prayer. The state police superintendent ordered them to offer only non-denominational prayers at public events. All stories about movement on First Amendment protections are big and the Washington-area papers made sure to cover it.

Here’s a bit from the Washington Times:

To “require those troopers to disregard their own faith while serving violates their First Amendment rights and prevents them from serving effectively as chaplains,” said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican. “These men had little choice but to resign.”

Col. [Steven Flaherty, the State Police superintendent,] asked the chaplains to offer only nondenominational prayers at public events, such as trooper graduations and annual memorial services. He said he was acting in response to a recent 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that dealt with sectarian prayers offered at meetings of the Fredericksburg City Council.

Both papers emphasized the political angle to this story but the Washington Post story actually led with partisan politics, as if that’s the most important angle:

Six Virginia State Police troopers have resigned their voluntary positions as chaplains following the implementation of a policy that bans them from referring to Jesus Christ in public prayers.

House Republicans blasted Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) for the directive Wednesday, but Kaine’s office said the police superintendent issued the directive.

I know that the real focus of all journalism is politics (yawn), but couldn’t we begin with a discussion of the theological implications here? Why did these chaplains feel compelled to quit? Are some religious groups more affected by this order than others? Why is that? What do First Amendment scholars have to say about this order?

Both stories have helpful perspective and context, about the trooper history and other chaplain controversies.

Flaherty said he made the order in response to a recent federal appeals court ruling that a Fredericksburg City Council member may not pray “in Jesus’s name” during council meetings because the opening invocation is government speech. Neither story explored that ruling, which is terribly fascinating. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor sat in on the decision. The case involved the implementation of a policy that all invocations at city council meetings must be generic and non-sectarian. A council member argued that the government doesn’t have the right to dictate the content of official prayers and can’t require non-sectarian prayers.

O’Connor said that since the government wasn’t forcing anyone to pray against their conscience but merely offering them the opportunity to pray on behalf of the government, First Amendment rights weren’t violated. If the government wants official prayers that don’t mention Jesus, the council member can decline to pray “on behalf” of the government, she wrote. And he can pray according to his own conscience on his own time.

This is just a fascinating decision. For one thing, it certainly favors people who already pray in a non-sectarian or openly interfaith manner. It’s basically only a problem for religious adherents who make exclusive truth claims or whose religious traditions require praying in Jesus’ name or in the name of the complete Trinity. Many Eastern Orthodox bishops would insist on the latter, for instance.

In that sense, a decision such as this could be seen as favoring one type of religious group over another. Is that a problem? Is that an interesting discussion for a newspaper article? Is it, perhaps, more interesting than whether Republicans and Democrats disagree on the matter? I think so. Hopefully future articles on this topic will pay more attention to the First Amendment implications.

Print Friendly

  • Brian Walden

    What is acceptably interdenominational in our culture which has moved beyond denominations. I’m sure there are more religions than just Christianity on the police force. Is appealing to a Creator without specifically invoking any members of the Trinity acceptable to Buddhist troopers? Is any prayer at all acceptable to athiests? How does one have truly inter-religious prayer and still have it mean something?

    I had the same thought as Mollie when reading the article, that in attempting to not promote one specific religion the state is in fact promoting a specific group of religious ideas. I don’t think the intention of the First Amendment was to keep the government from praying, but at the same time it’s very difficult for the government to pray without invoking some ideas a particular religion. How do you resolve this paradox?

  • Julia

    To “require those troopers to disregard their own faith while serving violates their First Amendment rights and prevents them from serving effectively as chaplains,” said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican. “These men had little choice but to resign.”

    The Founders and later big political figures like Lincoln (IIRC) managed to speak of god without mentioning Jesus in particular. It’s a habit that maybe should come back. What’s so awful about that? A generic prayer in public is not the same as a denominational prayer in front of a person’s own religious group. Why the insistance on mentioning Jesus?

    After 9/11, as a singer, I was invited to take part in an event labelled as an “ecumenical” event for unity in America. All the local politicians were there and it was billed as a civic event. When I asked some members of the sponsoring church, a Methodist megachurch, why we were doing all this singing and praying to Jesus, they looked at me like I was ignorant. When I pointed out that it had been billed as a civic event and not a Christian event, they grinned and said it wouldn’t hurt Jews and Muslims to hear about Jesus. Even something like this 9/11 event was being treated as an evangelizing moment.

    This is the problem, as I see it. Public civic events are being treated as “Christian” witnessing opportunities when they shouldn’t be. At the least, public events should be non-denominational and inoffensive to non-Christians. Maybe the only solution is – no praying at civic events any more. Atheists are getting more vocal and we are having increasing numbers of Muslims – they have rights, too.

    If a chaplain thinks he can’t pray in public without mentioning Jesus, then he shouldn’t pray at public events. But – Why the need to quit the job entirely? Is it that some chaplains believe that they are actually evangelizing 100% of the time? And that their religious beliefs require this 100% evangelizing? Otherwise, quitting makes no sense.

    Hope this isn’t O/T.

  • http://www.magdalenesegg.blogspot.com Rev. Michael Church

    This comes up a lot, even for those of us who aren’t chaplains. If I am asked to pray at a public event without mentioning God as my own religion understands God (Christ, Trinity, etc.), I politely decline. Occasionally, when people are shocked by a prayer that uses this language at a civic event, I explain as politely as I can that those words are what I am called to talk about.

    What I wonder is whether press coverage that was more theologically-informed could help the organizers of civic events and so forth know what to ask for, and what to expect.

    It would begin with behind-the-scenes consideration of whether “non-denominational” should be permitted by a newspaper’s style book, in instances when “interreligious” is clearly intended, and proceed, in stories that deal with the question, to ask two important questions: (a) of religious leaders, what are the norms for prayer in their community of faith; and (b) of event organizers, what purpose they hope that a prayer will serve.

  • http://www.draknet.com/proteus Judy Harrow

    It seems to me to be a matter of simple respect in a pluralistic society. Why should non-Christians who are graduating as state troopers be forced to participate in prayers that go against their own belief system?

    This happened to me, at my college graduation. I went to a college that was 10% international students, which means many Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims from the Third World, plus a good number of American Jews. But the guy who gave the sermon at our Baccalaureate service really had to push his specific “one way” theology right into our faces. And my old grandfather was sitting there, forced to listen. Y’know, that sort of thing was why he left Europe in the first place. It was humiliating and infuriating!

    To all Jewish readers of this blog: l’shana tova tikvotenu — and Blessed be to all!

  • Matt

    It’s basically only a problem for religious adherents who make exclusive truth claims or whose religious traditions require praying in Jesus’ name or in the name of the complete Trinity.

    No, there is no necessary problem for the former. I can very easily make exclusive truth claims without requiring the unconvinced to act as if they agreed. Problems arise not when I claim my beliefs are true, but when I decide that people who believe otherwise are unworthy of tolerance or respect.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Matt,

    But that’s not what the order says. It just says you have to pray in a “non-denominational” way. In other words, you can’t pray in a way that reveals you believe in exclusive truth. Right?

  • http://www.gethsemanelutheranchurch.org Greg DeVore

    What I find interesting about this is the use of the term non-denominational. The term non-denominatonal is a Christian term for well generic Christianity. I am not familar with any Christian tradition that would be offended with the use of ‘in Jesus name’ so that prayer formula is non-denominational. It would have made more sense if they had used the term non-sectarian which suggests prayer that does not favor any particular religious sect. The term non-denominational arose in a Christian context and is being misused by the state police superintendent.

  • Dave

    This problem isn’t going away any time soon. Sooner or later some judge will put all the conflicting claims together and decide there is no way for the government to pray without infringing on someone’s religious freedom. That judge will conclude that the only resolution is for the government not to pray.

    But that puts us squarely in the comfort zone of Humanists and other atheists, and that will be perceived as unfair. So we’ll start the shouting all over again.

  • Matt

    Mollie: You are right in what you say. The distinction I am making is between believing in exclusive truth (no problem there) and feeling compelled to talk about it in an (arguably) inappropriate time and place.

    Greg: I agree that “non-sectarian” would be a better word. However, keep in mind that the 2000 Texas school prayer case arose from complaints made by a Catholic and a Mormon who felt excluded by the Baptist character of a public prayer. Different Christian traditions do pray in identifiably different ways.

  • Jerry

    Mollie: You are right in what you say. The distinction I am making is between believing in exclusive truth (no problem there) and feeling compelled to talk about it in an (arguably) inappropriate time and place.

    That is, I think, the key point. One thing that I did not read about was whether or not those affected felt that all prayer has to be vocal; that silent prayer is insufficient, and, if so, what the theological basis is for that judgment or, for that matter, what is wrong with ending with the Lord’s Prayer which is about as non-sectarian as a prayer gets.

  • Jimmy Mac

    The Brits have a succinct guide in these situations: If you take the Queen’s shilling, you do the Queen’s bidding.

  • http://www.draknet.com/proteus Judy Harrow

    Relevant to this discussion, see this article from today’s New York Times about yet another soldier having been forced to participate in religious activity against his own will and beliefs:

    http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/us/AP-Military-Religion.html

  • Dave2

    Mollie, Matt:

    I’m not convinced that anybody’s getting preferential treatment here (well, except for believers, who always get preferential treatment). Sure, the exclusivists don’t get to advertise their exclusivist theology. But the inclusivists/universalists don’t get to advertise their theology either, or so I would have thought.

    Observe:

    “In the name of Jesus Christ, the only way to heaven” – NOT OK

    “Heavenly Father, we know you’ll save Christians, Jews, Muslims, anybody who turns to you, Lord” – NOT OK

    “Heavenly Father, we know you’ll save every last human being that ever lived” – NOT OK

    “Heavenly Father, thank you for all the blessings you’ve given us” – OK

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Dave2:

    Right. In church-state terms, what you are describing is called doctrinal entanglement. That’s what you are trying to avoid. State mandated doctrinal content, controls and limits.

  • Michelle

    Mollie,
    Your article “Look Who’s Irrational Now” in last week’s WSJ was well-written and timely.
    I was wondering if you know about the Amy Writing Awards. The Amy Foundation has a similar purpose as your organization. See link below. I think your type of articles would qualify but, for future reference, it must be reinforced with a passage of scripture.

    http://www.amyfound.org/amy_writing_awards/amy_writing_awards.html

    Something to keep in mind.

  • FW Ken

    Public prayer is the corporate act of a community. Separation of religion from other corporate aspects of a society (including it’s governmental aspects) is a modern innovation. Prior to the modern era, religion was a defining characteristic of a community, so it’s clear that silent prayer really is insufficient, that to be a non-praying spectator is to separate oneself from the community that is praying.

    Law enforcement academies (and military academies, for that matter) are powerful bonding, community-building experiences, so they are particularly sensitive environments for this sort of problem; even the radical individualism of American society yields, at some points, to the human experience of community, of fellowship and mutual concern.

    It’s a legitimate point that to be devoid of doctrine is itself a doctrine and it remains to be seen if, over the long haul, a “secular” society can avoid the sort of institutionalized atheism that struggles against Christianity and, indeed all faiths (the Buddhists in southeast Asia and the Fulon Gong in China come to mind).

  • Greg DeVore

    fwken- The problem we face FW Ken is we are a pluralistic society. Traditional societies have a lot more religous unity then modern America and thus corporate prayer makes sense. At one time America was not only 99% protestant but protestants whose denominations arose in the British Isles. We were congregationalists, presbyterians, meathodists and episcopalians. Through immigration we let all kinds of other religions into this country like Roman Catholics and Lutherans (my group) and Reformed and all kinds of denominations not from English/Scotish protestantism. Lately we have Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist immigration which further complicates corporate prayer. In addition to this we have our home grown American religions such as Mormonism, the Watchtower, Seventh Day Adventism and others. We are in a hugely pluralistic environment which complicates public prayer. I am really, really uncomfortable with state mandated prayer. We either need to let the designated prayer pray according to his or her conscience or we need to abandon public prayer. The option of the state regulating the content of prayer is horrific.

  • Jay

    Since this is supposed to be a blog about religious coverage in the press, how about more coverage of the misuse (as others have noted) of “non-denominational” as a synonym for “non-sectarian”?

  • Matt

    Separation of religion from other corporate aspects of a society (including it’s governmental aspects) is a modern innovation. Prior to the modern era, religion was a defining characteristic of a community

    Not actually. A couple millenia ago it was Christians who insisted that they were faithful Roman citizens even while they refused to participate in their society’s common religious (i.e., pagan) observance. And they were persecuted for it. How far we’ve come.

  • kerner

    I think that the United States originally practiced a religious pluralism that accepted some basic common principles, but no longer. For example, Dave2 @13, suggests that a prayer beginning “Heavenly Father” is “OK”. What makes us think that all of us (assuming we believe in God at all) believe that God is located in an actual heaven or that God is a “father”?

    I also think the entire concept of government paid chaplains should be reconsidered. Nowadays, finding a prayer that offends no one is impossible, because such a prayer would have to be so watered down that it would be meaningless, which would offend everyone who takes faith seriously. But the alternative is to let any clergyperson be a chaplain, and I am not too nuts about that either. In my home state of Wisconsin, the Department of Corrections employs a witch as one of its chaplains (I’m sure THAT is helping rehabilitate the inmates) and my tax dollars are paying for it.

    I begin to think that government paid chaplaincies should be abolished. Christians are better off sending our own chaplains to serve government workers (or prisoners) and paying for it ourselves. Only then would we be free from government regulation, and the chaplains can preach the truth as they see it.

  • http://www.draknet.com/proteus Judy Harrow

    Dear Kerner

    Would you care to explain precisely what your problem is with Wiccan inmates having access to a chaplain of their own faith?
    While we’re at it, how about hospital patients? Soldiers? People who are living in institutional settings, away from home, are more vulnerable than most folks, and more in need of spiritual support in accordance with their own beliefs. Would you really deny this bit of comfort to people whose beliefs are different from your own?

  • FW Ken

    Matt – the point is that Christians were persecuted for refusing to participate in the state religion.

    #17 – and interesting point: the distinction of “pluralistic” from “secular”. I used the latter term, when, arguably, I meant the former.

  • Dave

    FW Ken: I assumed that Matt’s “how far we’ve come” @#19 was intended as ironic. In some parts of the country, Pagan kids are persecuted for not participating in church camps that the whole school is given a day off to attend.

  • FW Ken

    I was unaware that prison and the lions were the fate of pagans these days. Documentation?

  • Dave2

    kerner wrote:

    I think that the United States originally practiced a religious pluralism that accepted some basic common principles, but no longer. For example, Dave2 @13, suggests that a prayer beginning “Heavenly Father” is “OK”. What makes us think that all of us (assuming we believe in God at all) believe that God is located in an actual heaven or that God is a “father”?

    Hey, don’t get me wrong, I’m an atheist. When I wrote that such a prayer was okay, I was simply relying on the standards of ecumenical Abrahamic theism that seem to pull the most weight in American political culture. I tried to indicate that these standards are themselves questionable with the parenthetical comment “well, except for believers, who always get preferential treatment”, though I appreciate that austere deists and Spinozists might count as believers and still object to the term ‘Heavenly Father’.

  • Matt

    I was unaware that prison and the lions were the fate of pagans these days.

    The degree is different; the principle is the same. We should want people to receive the Christian Gospel because they are genuinely attracted to it and believe in it, not out of peer pressure or coercion.

  • Dave

    FW Ken asks:

    Documentation?

    I don’t keep documentation of Pagans persecuted by Christians in present times, but if you are actually interested in the subject I recommend tracking Jason Pitzl-Water’s blog http://www.wildhunt.org and Wren Walker’s site http://www.witchvox.org. There’s a lot of other stuff in the data stream of each, but this kind of story pops up with depressing regularity.

  • kerner

    Dear Judy Harrow:

    In one sense, there is nothing “wrong” with Wiccans or anyone else receiving comfort or religious leadership from a clergyperson of their own faith. In another sense, I believe that Christianity is the truth and that other religions are necessarily false. So in a doctrinal sense, there is plenty wrong with it, at least for me. I do not seek to supress the Wiccan’s religion, but I don’t feel I should be compelled to pay for it either. I see no reason to ask a Wiccan to fund the preaching of my religion, but I also see no reason why a Wiccan should expect me to fund the preaching of his.

    I think the solution to our present, very pluralistic, society is for the various religions to fund their own chaplaincies in prisons, the military, state universities and other institutions, government institutions, and wherever else chaplaincies might be established. Government funding should be limited to allowing all of them access to the institutions and the use of facilities. This would include Christians, Wiccans, and everyone else. All religions would be free and none would be established. The 1st Amendment would be served.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X