ACLU letter warns board of supervisors that practice of opening meetings with sectarian prayers violates First AmendmentPittsylvania County, VA – The ACLU of Virginia today sent a letter to members of the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors noting that their practice of opening meetings with a Christian prayer violates court rulings permitting legislative prayers only when they are broad expressions of faith that do not endorse a particular religion.
“The government should never use its power to promote one religion over others,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “That is why the first clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from establishing religion, and why the courts have made it clear that formal prayers at legislative meetings must be broad and inclusive rather than focusing on a particular religion.”
In a letter emailed earlier today, ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg pointed out that in recent cases involving the Fredericksburg City Council and the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that official prayers delivered at legislative meetings are not individual expressions of religious belief but government speech, and that the government is not permitted to show a preference for one religious denomination over others.
Only last month, the Fourth Circuit reaffirmed this legal principle, ruling that sectarian prayers at meetings of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners in North Carolina were unconstitutional.
Although most government expressions of religion violate the constitutional mandate for separation of church and state, the Supreme Court has carved out an exception for prayers that open meetings of legislative bodies, noting the nation’s long history and custom of solemnizing such meetings with prayers. However, the high court has made it clear that such prayers must be nonsectarian to avoid any appearance of the government promoting one particular religion at the expense of other religions.
In her letter, Glenberg acknowledges that nonsectarian prayers are permissible but suggests that the simplest solution for the Pittsylvania Board of Supervisors might be to eliminate prayers altogether.
Glenberg’s letter is available at http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Pittsylvania-BOS-Prayer-ltr.pdf.
Contact: ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis, 804-644-8022