Fourth Circuit Upholds Fredericksburg Prayer Policy

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
July 23, 2008 12:00 am

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Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor says Fredericksburg’s requirement that meeting-opening prayers be nonsectarian is constitutional

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CONTACT: acluva@acluva.org

Richmond, VA — A three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals today upheld Fredericksburg City Council’s policy requiring that formal prayers used to open its meetings be nonsectarian. The opinion was written by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was a guest-member of the panel when it heard oral arguments in March.

“This is a victory for religious freedom,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “The Supreme Court has long held that government officials are allowed to open legislative gatherings with a prayer, but that such prayers must in no way indicate a preference for one religion over others.”

“Individuals are free to express their own religious preferences, but religious equality cannot exist when the government is allowed to use its considerable power to promote one particular faith,” added Willis. “Today’s ruling reaffirms that fundamental principle.”

The origins of the Fredericksburg case go back several years when a Fredericksburg resident complained to the ACLU of Virginia that Rev. Hashmel Turner was opening Council meetings with a Christian prayer. After the ACLU intervened, Turner twice stopped participating in the prayer ceremony, but then asked fellow members of Council to adopt a policy permitting sectarian prayers. Council instead followed the advice of the ACLU and voted to abide by legal precedents by adopting a policy requiring that formal prayers at its meetings be nonsectarian.

Rev. Turner mounted a legal challenge to the policy in 2006. Later that year, U.S. District Court Judge James Spencer ruled against Turner, who then appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

“The ACLU has made it clear to Rev. Turner that he has a right to express his religious beliefs in private and in public, including during City Council deliberations,” said Willis. “But in those few moments when he offers an official prayer as the voice of the government, he must not abuse the privilege to promote his own particular religious beliefs.”

Hunton & Williams and People for the American Way provided direct legal representation to the Fredericksburg City Council. The ACLU of Virginia and Americans United for Separation of Church and State supported the prayer policy with a friend-of-the-court brief.

The ACLU’s amicus brief and the ruling from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals are available at http://www.acluva.org/docket/turner.html.

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