More than 200 years ago, Virginia was the most powerful state in the fledgling United States of America, spawning visionary leaders like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
How times have changed in the Old Dominion.
Instead of leaders such as Jefferson and Madison, who fought state-established religion and labored to bring full religious liberty to all, Virginia’s government today is saddled with a collection of ideologues who kowtow to the Religious Right and constantly seek to fan the flames of the “culture war.”
The latest assault on the Constitution comes from Gov. Robert McDonnell, who has rescinded a directive stating that State Police chaplains must use non-sectarian prayers at public events.
W. Steven Flaherty, superintendent of the state police, in 2008 directed the department’s 17 chaplains to use non-denominational language at events such as trooper graduation ceremonies and public memorial services for officers who have died in the line of duty.
“The department recognizes the importance of a state government agency to be inclusive and respectful of the varied ethnicities, cultures and beliefs of our employees, their families and citizens at large,” Flaherty noted in a statement.
It makes sense from public policy and legal perspectives. Legal experts had noted that a federal appeals court struck down the use of sectarian invocations at government meetings in Virginia, and Flaherty’s policy merely brought the State Police into compliance with the law.
None of this mattered to McDonnell, of course. The governor, a graduate of TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Regent University, is more interested in undermining the Constitution than supporting it.
McDonnell spoke at Regent earlier this month, vowing to implement what he called “servant leadership” in Virginia.
“It reflects those words of Jesus, who said that the greatest among you is the servant of all, and the fact that he came not to be served, but to serve,” McDonnell said. “I think that is the model for servant leadership.”
My guess is that the people McDonnell is most interested in “serving” are Robertson and his band of Religious Right followers.
They were certainly excited over the new prayer rules, confident that every public event will now feature their form of Christian prayers. They may be less so when the state ends up wasting tax funds trying to defend the measure in court.
Federal courts, University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told the Virginian-Pilot, have “already ruled basically that what the governor is authorizing is unconstitutional.”
Tobias added, “What we’re going to have is a piece of the litigation and the plaintiffs will win and they’ll get attorneys fees as well. I just don’t understand why the governor is going to invite this type of litigation, which is going to be very divisive and expensive.”
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn agreed. The new policy, Lynn told the newspaper, “may very likely spark lawsuits that could cost the taxpayers lots of money. If that happens, McDonnell will be the man to blame.”
But McDonnell’s action does more than potentially waste taxpayer funds. It sends a message that religious majoritarianism is acceptable at governmental events. It gives a green light to chaplains who want to use public ceremonies to proselytize for their specific faith. It sends a message of second-class citizenship to anyone who belongs to a minority faith.
It’s also – dare I say it? – not very Christian. Jesus himself warned against making a big, showy display of public prayers. He called the people who do that hypocrites but lauded those who pray privately at home. (Matthew 6:5-6)
The prayer directive is merely the latest in a series of embarrassing stunts from Virginia’s new leaders. Earlier this year, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II mailed letters to public universities across the state, warning them that they have no right to adopt gay-friendly policies. Not long after that, McDonnell issued a proclamation recognizing “Confederate History Month” that failed to mention slavery.
Add to this McDonnell’s decision to appoint voucher advocate Gerard Robinson as secretary of education, his proclamation of “Christian Heritage Week” and his decision to ban public funding of abortions for poor women and you can see that the state is stumbling along the road to theocracy.
What’s really scary is that I fear all of this is just a start. McDonnell has been in office for just four months. What else does he plan to do to appease the Religious Right?
Virginia has a proud heritage. If McDonnell would invoke the spirit of Jefferson and Madison, he might achieve something of value. Instead, he seems intent on taking his cues from the Religious Right. That misguided movement takes it inspiration from quite a different historical period. We call it the Dark Ages.