By Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free expression thereof…” -- U.S. Constitution, Amendment I
Many of us are aware of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty, but opinions may vary as to how these words are interpreted. The ACLU believes that each individual has the right to freely practice his or her religion and that the government should neither endorse religion over non-religion nor promote one religion over others. It seems pretty simple, but in real world applications, it can be a bit of a sticky wicket.
Two issues regarding religious freedom have recently been ignited in Virginia. The first issue involves Chesterfield County’s consideration of a controversial bible curriculum and the second, the chaplaincy prayer policy of the Virginia State Police.
The Chesterfield County Textbook Review Committee is considering a bible curriculum, “The Bible in History and Literature,” which is produced by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. By the title, it seems innocuous enough. However, the text promotes a particular interpretation of the Bible and a manner of teaching it that would almost certainly amount to government endorsement of a particular interpretation of the Bible that is not even widely accepted by most Christians in the world.
In 2007, this particular Bible curriculum was the subject of an ACLU lawsuit in Texas, which led the local school board to agree not to use it. In 2008, the Craig County School Board proposed using it, but changed its mind after we objected to it. Additionally, an earlier version of the curriculum was struck down as unconstitutional by a Florida court in 1998. With this history in mind, we sent Chesterfield officials a letter urging them not to use this particular bible course.
Some may believe that the ACLU would like religion kept out of public schools, but that’s just not true. We recognize the importance religion, including Christianity, has had on history and culture. Public schools may teach comparative religion and may even teach about the Bible when it is done in an objective and scholarly way. What’s more, students are free to pray on their own when in school. They just can’t be subjected to school-organized or promoted prayers.
While Chesterfield County considers which textbooks to use, Governor Bob McDonnell recently caved into pressure to reverse the Superintendent of State Police’s policy requiring that prayers given at department-sanctioned events be non-sectarian. The Superintendent, Col. W. Steven Flaherty, issued this policy in 2008 after the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Turner v. Fredericksburg, affirmed a lower court ruling requiring that Fredericksburg City Council’s meeting-opening prayers be nonsectarian.
Opponents to the 2008 policy argue that volunteer police chaplains should be able to pray as they wish—including invoking Jesus’ name—during police department events. To some it seems like the ACLU opposes allowing volunteer police chaplains to express their individual views, but that’s not the case at all.
Although they are volunteers, when these police chaplains are opening a department-sanctioned event, they are acting as representatives of the government speaking on behalf of the government. As such, they cannot advance one particular religious denomination over another. The U.S. Supreme Court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals have unequivocally ruled that such prayers represent the views of the government and therefore must be broad and inclusive and never express a preference for a particular religion. The Fourth Circuit reaffirmed this principle in the Turner case.
Gov. McDonnell is simply wrong – both on the legal principles and what constitutes an appropriate policy for protecting religious liberty and equality—when he eliminated the policy and urged chaplains to offer sectarian prayers at police event.
Wouldn’t it be simpler to follow the wisdom of our Founding Fathers and allow religious liberty for all by keeping government’s hands off of religion in the first place?
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