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City Council expected to OK public prayer policy

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Fredericksburg City Councilman Fred Howe ended the invocation at the council’s last meeting with the words, “In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

Six weeks earlier, he would have been in hot water for invoking the name of Jesus Christ.

But earlier that evening, the council met in a closed session with City Attorney Kathleen Dooley to discuss its prayer policy in the wake of the May 5 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Town of Greece v. Susan Galloway.

Members learned that the Fredericksburg council’s policy needed to change to comply with the ruling, which said that the U.S. Constitution’s “establishment clause” was not violated by sectarian prayers at government meetings.

So Howe, who was scheduled to give that night’s invocation chose to exercise his constitutional right.

“I took the opportunity to break the ice,” he said afterward.

Tonight, the council is expected to change the policy established on Nov. 8, 2005, and re-approved on March 9, 2010, which limited prayers to a “nondenominational God.”

Other local governments in the Fredericksburg region—several of which begin public meetings with prayers, some of them explicitly Christian—don’t have formal policies and don’t appear to be planning any major changes in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling.

The matter became an issue in Fredericksburg in 2002 following the election of Hashmel Turner Jr., an ordained Baptist minister.

When it was Turner’s turn to offer the invocation, he invoked the name of Jesus Christ. But he quickly removed his name from the prayer rotation after a constituent emailed a complaint in the summer of 2002.

He reversed course after other residents encouraged him to take part, but that was short-lived.

After he gave the invocation on July 22, 2003, mentioning Jesus again, the Virginia director of the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the city complaining about the sectarian prayer.

Turner bowed out again but said he felt his First Amendment right to speak freely was violated. This time, he consulted with attorneys for the Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute, who agreed with him.

But in July 2004, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in a South Carolina case that members of the town council invoking names specifically associated with the Christian faith violated the establishment clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment.

The city’s policy followed, but Turner didn’t give up.

He sued the city in federal court. He lost in U.S. District Court in Richmond but appealed to the Fourth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, which ruled against him in July 2008.

After years of efforts, Turner was elated by last month’s Supreme Court ruling in the Town of Greece case, calling it a “great day for America.”

Tonight, the City Council is expected to approve the policy change as part of the consent agenda.

Dooley outlined the issues from the Supreme Court ruling in a two-page memorandum to the council and then listed the following five summary points for the revised policy.

The purpose of the invocation at the beginning of a city council meeting is to lend gravity to the meeting and to reflect values long part of the nation’s heritage. The invocation invites council members to reflect upon shared ideas and common ends before they embark on the business before them.

The invocation should be brief, solemn and respectful in tone, and directed to the City Council members themselves, not members of the public. Members of the public may stand or bow their heads for the invocation if they wish.

The council member who gives the invocation may address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates, and may offer a nonsectarian prayer or a prayer specific to a particular religious tradition. In offering the invocation, council members should be mindful of the diversity of religious viewpoints among members of the council as well as meeting observers.

Invocations shall not proselytize or advance any one or disparage any specific faith or belief, denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion.

The City Council will not discriminate against any person on the basis of his or her religious beliefs.

Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972

pgould@freelancestar.com

POLICY TIMELINE

Events that led to the Fredericksburg City Council’s current policy requiring “nondenominational” prayers and the change expected tonight.

JULY 1, 2002–Hashmel Turner Jr., an ordained minister, takes office as the Ward 4 representative to City Council. He begins participating in the prayer rotation and invokes the name of Jesus Christ. Soon thereafter, a constituent emails him to complain and he withdraws from the prayer rotation.

JULY 22, 2003–Turner resumes participation in the prayer rotation. The ACLU of Virginia files a complaint. Turner again withdraws after council decides to restrict wording of prayers.

JULY 2004—U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals rules in a South Carolina case that members of the town council invoking names specifically associated with the Christian faith is a violation of the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

NOV. 8, 2005–In a 5–1 vote, with Councilman Matt Kelly opposing and Turner abstaining, the Fredericksburg City Council adopts 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.”

MARCH 9, 2010–The Fredericksburg City Council restates its policy in a unanimous vote.

MAY 5, 2014–U.S. Supreme Court rules in Town of Greece V. Susan Galloway that public meetings can include prayers that use specific religious language.

JUNE 10–Fredericksburg City Councilman Fred Howe ends his invocation with the words, “In Jesus’ name, Amen.” This followed a briefing by the city attorney on the council’s prayer policy in light of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

TONIGHT–Fredericksburg City Council is expected to approve a revised policy that allows council members to use language of specific religions but forbids proselytizing.

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