The case, Simpson v. Chesterfield Board of Supervisors, was filed last year on behalf of Cynthia Simpson, a Wiccan, who was told that she could not pray at the meetings because she did not practice a religion within the Judeo-Christian tradition. Simpson is represented by the ACLU of Virginia, with assistance from American United for Separation of Church and State.
In the decision, U.S. District Court magistrate judge Dennis W. Dohnal ruled that by preferring some religions over others, the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors is violating the constitutional mandate for separation of church and state and discriminating against Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and many other religions widely practiced in the United States. The judge ordered the County to change the policy to include all faiths or to stop using the policy altogether.
“We are disappointed that Chesterfield County has decided to pursue this matter,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis, “but we are confident that we will prevail at the next level.
“It is hard to believe that county leaders think they can win a case in which, as a matter of policy and practice, they blatantly discriminate against minority religions,” added Willis. “ They are asking the court to stand on its head 200 years of tradition and law protecting the right of all religions to be treated equally. ”
For many years Chesterfield County has opened its meetings with prayers, usually offered by clergy from Christian denominations. When Simpson asked that her name be added to the list of those allowed to pray at the meetings, she received a letter from County Attorney Steven L. Micas that included the following:
"Chesterfield's non-sectarian invocations are traditionally made to a divinity that is consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Based upon our review of Wicca, it is neo-pagan and invokes polytheistic, pre-Christian deities. Accordingly, we cannot honor your request to be included on the list of religious leaders that are invited to provide invocations at the meetings of the Board of Supervisors."
Lawyers representing Ms. Simpson are: Rebecca K. Glenberg, legal director, ACLU of Virginia; ACLU cooperating attorney Victor M. Glasberg of Glasberg & Associate; and, Ayesha Khan, legal director for American United for Separation of Church and State.
Contact: Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022