Court Bans Prayer in Jesus' Name
Special Report - July 25, 2008
The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes North Carolina, ruled on July 23, 2008 that the Fredericksburg, Virginia City Council may prohibit its members from opening their meetings with a prayer in Jesus’ name without violating free speech rights under the First Amendment. A City Council member, the Reverend Hashmel Turner, brought the suit when he was excluded from the prayer rotation because he intended to pray “in Jesus’ name.” Rev. Turner challenged a non-sectarian prayer policy adopted by the City Council in 2005. The policy was put in place in response to a threat from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to file a lawsuit over Rev. Turner’s past prayers in the name of Jesus.
A three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals issued the decision, which was written by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who participated as a visiting judge. The Court determined that the prayers constituted “government speech” instead of private speech. In fact, only City Council members were allowed to give the opening prayers, and the Court noted that Rev. Turner was “allowed to speak only by virtue of his role as a Council member.” Therefore, it reasoned that the prayer policy did not violate Rev. Turner’s Free Speech and Free Exercise rights under the First Amendment, nor did the requirement that the prayers be “nondenominational” violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because the policy was “designed to make the prayers accessible to people who come from a variety of backgrounds, not to exclude or disparage a particular faith.”
North Carolina Family Policy Council attorney Tami Fitzgerald said, “It is unfortunate that the Fredericksburg City Council, when threatened by the ACLU, chose to back down and adopt a prayer policy that required non-denominational prayers. They could have allowed denominational prayers by adopting a policy that would have transferred responsibility for the opening prayers from Council members themselves to local clergy members selected randomly. This type of policy has been advocated by the Alliance Defense Fund and has been adopted nation-wide by a number of local and state governments. So long as prayers at public meetings are offered by private citizens, not government officials, and are not intended to proselytize or to disparage another religion, governmental bodies are allowed to have sectarian prayers before their meetings.”
Copyright © 2008. North Carolina Family Policy Council. All rights reserved.