Supreme Court Rejects Case Challenging Fredericksburg City Council Prayer Policy

January 13, 2009 12:00 am

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Official Prayers at Government Meetings Must Be Nonsectarian


Richmond, VA — The U.S. Supreme Court decided yesterday that it will not hear a case challenging Fredericksburg City Council’s policy requiring that the prayers offered at the beginning of meetings by the members of Council be nonsectarian.

“In rejecting the case, the Supreme Court is merely following its own precedent for protecting religious freedom and equality,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis.

“In 1982, the high court took a long hard look at the tradition of opening meetings of legislative bodies with prayers and came to what was essentially a compromise,” added Willis. “It ruled 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. That, the court concluded, was the only way to protect the custom of opening government meetings with a prayer while making sure the government is not allowed to use its considerable power to promote one particular faith over others.”

The origins of the Fredericksburg case go back to 2004 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. Since then both the U.S. District Court in Richmond and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals have rejected his case.

“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 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:

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