Request Comes After Court Strikes Down Sectarian Prayers at Gov’t Meetings

The ACLU of Virginia today warned members of the Fredericksburg City Council that their practice of opening meetings with a sectarian prayer is unconstitutional. In a letter addressed to council member Hashmel Turner and copied to other members of council and the city attorney, the ACLU points to a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling yesterday ordering a South Carolina town council to stop referring to Jesus in its opening prayers.
Last summer, the ACLU warned Turner, a minister who rotates with several other council members to give the invocation at council meetings, that his frequent references to Jesus were unconstitutional. The ACLU did not question Turner’s right to open the meetings with a prayer, but said that sectarian prayers violated the separation of church and state by having the government favor one religion over others.
Turner initially stopped his prayers, but started again last fall after the Rutherford Institute told him that opening government assemblies with a Christian prayer was constitutionally guaranteed. The conservative Charlottesville group also promised to represent Turner in a lawsuit if city officials blocked his efforts to pray as he wished. By that time, the South Carolina case was already headed to the appeals court.
In its ruling in Wynne v. Town of Great Falls, the Fourth Circuit reaffirmed the right to open government meetings with a prayer, but stated unequivocally that such prayers must be non-sectarian. Virginia is included in the Fourth Circuit’s jurisdiction.
In his letter to Turner and other Fredericksburg officials, ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis wrote:
I am not asking that you cease to pray at the beginning of city council meetings. Nor am I suggesting that you conceal your faith during council deliberations. You have a right to be guided by your faith in your decision making, and you have the same right as anyone else to express your individual religious beliefs as you do that. However, an invocation at the beginning of a city council meeting is an official act of the Fredericksburg government. It must, as the Fourth Circuit has now mandated, be free of sectarian religious references in order to avoid sending the message to citizens that Fredericksburg prefers one religion over all others.
The ruling can be found at http://pacer.ca4. uscourts.gov/opinion.pdf/032069.P.pdf. The ACLU’s letter can be found at http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/20040724-Fred-Council-Prayers-I.pdf.

Contact: Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022

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