Civil liberties group says HB 2615 is an end run around recent Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision prohibiting sectarian prayers that open meetingsThe ACLU of Virginia has asked the Senate Committee on Local Government to reject or substantially revise a bill intended to give local governments a way to circumvent a recent federal court decision prohibiting sectarian prayers at government meetings.
Innocent appearing, HB 2615 seems only to declare that public officials and others in attendance may exercise their right of free speech prior to the opening of government meetings. But the bill’s real purpose, acknowledged by its patron and local governing bodies promoting its passage, is to create an artificial period just prior to the official opening of meetings during which sectarian prayers are permissible because they are not technically part of the meeting.
The sleight of hand is necessary because the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that while governing bodies are allowed to open their meetings with a prayer, such prayers may contain only broad references to a deity and may not invoke a particular religion, such as Christianity. Some governing bodies hoped to get around the ban by not officially calling their meetings to order until after the sectarian prayers had been delivered. HB 2615 is meant to facilitate this scheme by declaring that government officials are free to say anything they choose prior to the official opening of a meeting.
“In the end if it walks and talks like a government meeting, it is a government meeting,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis, “and if it’s a government meeting the official prayers that open it must be broadly inclusive of all faiths. No technicality in the law about when a meeting begins will change that.”
“On the other hand, if the General Assembly wants to pass a law creating a true public forum before every government meeting, we’re all for that,” added Willis. “If that’s the case, however, lawmakers need to amend this bill to make sure that every person at the meeting has equal access to the dais and the microphones. Any court will see the bad faith behind a law that purports to create a free speech period for all prior to the opening of a government meeting, but that limits control the of speech to government officials.”
The ACLU’s memo to the Senate Committee on local government is found at http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/20050218-HB-2615-Speech-before-Mtgs.pdf.
Contact: Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022