‘A GREAT DAY FOR AMERICA’
Former Fredericksburg City Councilman Hashmel Turner was jubilant over Monday’s United States Supreme Court ruling in which the court’s majority said prayers at public meetings can invoke specific religious language.
“I think it’s a great day for America,” Turner said. “Our forefathers are smiling down and pleased with the decision the highest court in the land delivered today.”
Turner, an ordained minister, started serving on the council in 2002 and participated in the rotation to offer a prayer at the start of meetings.
But after a resident complained about his use of the name of Jesus Christ, Turner briefly quit taking part. Then, after getting an opinion from the Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute, he resumed the practice.
Afterward, with the American Civil Liberties Union threatening a lawsuit, the council created a policy that only allowed council members to offer “nondenominational” prayers.
That November 2005 policy prompted Turner to sue the City Council, saying his First Amendment rights were being violated.
The city prevailed in a July 2008 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit but, with yesterday’s ruling, Turner said he felt vindicated.
His attorney, Johan Conrod of Kaufman and Canoles in Norfolk, agreed and said he hoped the city would now alter its policy.
On Monday, City Attorney Kathleen Dooley said she will re-evaluate the policy and provide the council with her advice, but did not expect to have that finished before next Tuesday’s meeting.
Also on Monday, Mark Flynn, general counsel for the Virginia Municipal League, advised government officials across the state to review their prayer policies to ensure compliance with the ruling.
“Today’s decision specifically rejects the rule that opening prayers must be nonsectarian,” he wrote.
He said that doesn’t mean local jurisdictions must automatically change or eliminate their policies, but he noted the ruling gives precedence to the First Amendment rights of the person praying, elevating it above concerns about the establishment clause.
On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled in Greece v. Galloway that sectarian prayers do not violate the First Amendment to the Constitution, which states that government shall not promote or mandate a specific religion—a part of the law commonly referred to as the “establishment clause.”
In that case, Sharon Galloway and Linda Stephens objected to the invocations being said by local ministers at meetings of the town board of Greece, N.Y., stating those prayers “violated their religious or philosophical views.”
But, in their 5–4 ruling, the Supreme Court’s majority noted that the town offered all faiths the opportunity to pray and no one was coerced into participating.
“An Establishment Clause violation is not made out any time a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views in a legislative forum,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.
Further, he stated that the use of prayer at public meetings dates to the founding of the United States.
“Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this Nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government to alter or define and that willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgment of their belief in a higher power, always with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs,” Kennedy wrote.
The majority opinion relied on the case of Marsh v. Chambers out of Nebraska, in which the court found no violation of the establishment clause in a state where a government-paid chaplain prayed at the start of each legislative session.
What the prayers should not do is proselytize or advance one religion or disparage another one, Kennedy noted, referencing the Marsh ruling.
The high court wrote that for small municipalities, the prayer provides an opportunity for a government official to express his or her values.
The ruling also noted that it would view the situation differently if people attending meetings were singled out for their beliefs, were told to participate, or if their participation had a bearing on an official decision.
Kennedy also noted that requiring nonsectarian prayers would put legislatures and courts in the position of being “censors of religious speech.”
“Government may not mandate a civic religion that stifles any but the most generic reference to the sacred any more than it may prescribe a religious orthodoxy,” he wrote.
Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972
CITY COUNCIL’S PRAYER POLICY
On Nov. 8, 2005, on the advice of City Attorney Kathleen Dooley and by a 5–1 vote with Councilman Hashmel Turner abstaining, the Fredericksburg City Council adopted a policy “to offer nondenominational prayers seeking God’s blessing on the governing body and his assistance in governing works of the city as a part of its official meeting.” Councilman Matt Kelly voted no.
On March 9, 2010, the council restated its policy as follows on a unanimous vote, according to Dooley. “The Fredericksburg City Council will open its legislative meetings by offering the official prayer to a non-denominational ‘God’ without invoking the name of a specifically sectarian or other denominational deity.”