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RICHMOND -- Two Republican lawmakers accused the Kaine administration Wednesday of an "attack on Christianity" for asking State Police chaplains to keep prayers nondenominational at some public events.
A news release issued Wednesday by House Republican Leader Morgan Griffith said some Virginia troopers who serve as chaplains gave up those roles because they can't pray in Jesus Christ's name in some circumstances.
Griffith's attack arose from a recent directive state police superintendent Col. W. Steven Flaherty issued to chaplains to keep prayers nondenominational at department-sponsored public events such as graduations from the trooper training academy.
The guidance was issued in response to a recent federal appeals court ruling upholding a Fredericksburg City Council policy against opening council meetings with prayers that mention Jesus.
The directive does not apply to chaplains in private venues such as funerals or in counseling grieving troopers or their loved ones.
The chaplain program is voluntary and was begun in 1979 to give State Police personnel with religious training an opportunity to spiritually counsel department employees and their families.
Griffith's release blasted Flaherty as well as the administration of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a former Roman Catholic missionary who remains active in the church.
"For those of us who understand the importance of religion in American life and value the free expression of religion as one of our essential rights, the Kaine administration's directive is disappointing and disheartening," Griffith wrote in the release.
Griffith and Del. Charles W. Carrico, R-Grayson and a former trooper, promised legislation in January to reverse the directive. Carrico is also preparing a Web site to publicize the controversy and offer an online petition calling upon Kaine to reverse the directive.
"Colonel Flaherty needs to abandon this attack on Christianity," Carrico said. He said the administration had bowed to "political correctness" by issuing the directive even though there had been no complaints about the chaplains' prayers.
"It aggravates me when public servants act unilaterally out of a supposed fear of getting a complaint instead of actually having to deal with one," he said in Griffith's release.
In a statement Flaherty issued Wedneday, he said his policy "respects those chaplains whose convictions and beliefs are in conflict" with the directive, and they have the opportunity to decline to participated in department-sanctioned public events.
Kaine's office said the House's Republican leadership was making the faith of Virginia's first Catholic governor grist for an election year.
"The governor is a man of faith and he has dedicated his life to that service," said press secretary Gordon Hickey. "It is disappointing that Del. Griffith would make such a political attack on Gov. Kaine about his faith."
Hickey said Kaine does not fault Flaherty because the directive aligns department policy with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' unanimous July decision. The Richmond-based appeals court is among the nation's most conservative.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by Fredericksburg Councilman Hashmel Turner, who claimed that the Council's nonsectarian prayer policy violated his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion.
The three judges disagreed with Turner, ruling that he was not forced to offer a prayer that violated his religious tenets. Turner had the chance to pray on behalf of the government, the court said, but was not willing to do so within the government's guidelines.
The Rutherford Institute, which represented Turner, will appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, said John Whitehead, president of the Charlottsville-based civil liberties group that focuses on First Amendment and religious freedom issues.
"This is the government telling people how to pray," he said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
"There are a lot of Christians as well as Jews and Muslims I deal with who say they have to begin or end a prayer in a specific way or it's not a valid prayer," Whitehead said.