FFRF urges Va. Speaker to stop promoting bible sessions

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is insisting that the speaker of the Virginia House stop utilizing state resources to recruit for bible study sessions that he’s been regularly organizing.

Speaker Kirk Cox reportedly conducts a weekly bible study in the Speaker’s Conference Room at the Pocahontas Building. Meetings of this bible study group are listed on the Virginia House of Delegates meeting schedule as the “Speaker’s Bible Study Caucus.” Cox’s chief of staff, apparently at the speaker’s direction, emailed every person within the General Assembly’s email system to invite them to the bible study. An email from Jan. 11, 2018, reads: “All members, staff, lobbyists and friends of the General Assembly are invited to attend Speaker Cox’s weekly Bible Study Wednesdays at 7AM in the 6th Floor Speaker’s Conference Room beginning January 17.” 

Cox should not be using the office of the speaker to promote his personal faith to his colleagues, subordinates and the wider public, FFRF asserts. As speaker of the House of Delegates, Cox is uniquely positioned among Virginia’s legislators, wielding significant authority over his colleagues, legislative staff — and the General Assembly as a whole. It is inappropriate for any elected official to promote a bible study to all employees of the Legislature using his or her official government email, FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott writes to Cox.

Government sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends a message to nonadherents “that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community,” to quote the U.S. Supreme Court. L

The religiously unaffiliated account for the largest single religious identity in the Commonwealth of Virginia — a full 23 percent of all Virginians, FFRF informs the speaker. When you combine this with sizable percentages of other minority religions, there is no doubt that many “members, staff, lobbyists and friends of the General Assembly” belong to a variety of faiths or no faith at all. These minority religious and nonreligious persons should not feel pressured to attend a religious event in their place of business to remain “insiders.”

Of course, elected officials are free to practice their faith on their own time, in their own way. But while acting in their official capacity, elected representatives act not as individuals, but on behalf of all citizens of the commonwealth. Every member, subordinate, lobbyist, and constituent having business with the speaker of the House should be assured that the speaker will act only in the public interest — and not based on any person’s religious belief, or lack thereof. Holding this bible study “caucus” and promoting it using the means of communication provided to Cox’s office undermines the appearance of impartiality, FFRF contends.

Once the government enters into the religion business, conferring endorsement and preference for certain religions over others, it strikes a blow at religious liberty, forcing taxpayers of all religions and of no religion to support particular expressions of worship, FFRF maintains. Given Cox’s role as an employer and a government official, it is only appropriate that he stop using legislative email and calendar systems to recruit bible study participants.

“The speaker should stop attempting to impose his religion on the entire House,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Cox is free to say his prayers — in his own house.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization with more than 32,000 members, including over 700 in Virginia. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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