Appeals Court Ruled Last Week that South Carolina Town Council’s Sectarian Prayers Violated Separation of Church. Ruling Applies to Virginia Jurisdictions.

In a letter faxed earlier today to members of the Fredericksburg City Council, the ACLU of Virginia says it is prepared to file a lawsuit if council member Hashmel Turner proceeds with plans to open Tuesday’s meeting with a sectarian religious prayer. Turner, a minister, announced this past weekend that he was prepared to defy a recent Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision prohibiting public officials from referring to specific religions when they deliver formal prayers at government meetings.
“The Supreme Court allows government meetings to be opened with a prayer,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis, “but it has been clear for years that such prayers must contain broad, inclusive references to faith that unify rather than divide on the basis of religion. When Rev. Turner opens city council meetings with a Christian prayer, he is telling non-Christians in Fredericksburg that their religion is less preferred.”
“Last week we asked Rev. Turner to follow the court’s ruling,” said Willis, “but he defiantly stated that he will not. Now, we are asking his peers on city council either to convince him to stop or to adopt a rule preventing him from delivering sectarian prayers.”
Under its current practices, Fredericksburg City Council meetings are opened with a prayer by members of council. The prayer is rotated among participating council members from one meeting to the next. Only Rev. Turner delivers a sectarian prayer.
“Fredericksburg City Council must stop Rev. Turner from delivering sectarian prayers, or dramatically change the way it hold prayers before meetings. As of now, the only religion that is mentioned is the Christian religion, and that is a clear violation of the decision from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.”
In today’s letter, the ACLU says it is prepared to file a federal lawsuit to stop Rev. Turner from delivering sectarian prayers if a resident of Fredericksburg who attends council meetings wishes to be a plaintiff.
A copy of the ACLU’s letter to the Fredericksburg City Council can be found at http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/20040726-Fred-Council-Prayers.pdf. The legal memo referred to in the letter is available by calling one of the numbers below or by sending an email to acluva@acluva.org.

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

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