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Local church/state conflicts

2001 to 2012: Prayers and invocations
in various U.S. municipal council meetings

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This topic is a continuation of an earlier essay

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2001-2005: Prayers at the Great Falls, SC town council meetings:

According to HeraldOnline, in 2001:

"Darla Kaye Wynne, a Wiccan high priestess, sued the town after its leaders refused to open meetings only with nonsectarian prayers or to allow members of different faiths to lead the prayers. Wynne claimed she was ostracized for refusing to stand and bow her head during the Christian prayers."

She won at the U.S. District Court, in front of a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and at the full Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case. This left stand the Court of Appeals' ruling. The town council had its own legal costs covered by an insurance policy. However, they now have to dig up $40,000 to cover Wynne's legal fees. She claims that she has been subjected to harassment, vandalism and violence since the case began. More info.

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2004-JUL-29: Half of Tampa FL city council walks out of meeting:

The Tampa city council has had a long tradition of having Christian ministers and an occasional Jewish rabbi deliver an invocation before the start of each meeting. Ed Golly, chairperson of Atheists of Florida offered to have someone from his group take a turn saying the invocation. Councilman John Dingfelder agreed. He later said that people of different beliefs, or lack thereof, deserve a chance to give an invocation without censorship. He said

"I thank God every day that I live in a country that accepts everybody."

The Atheist group had selected Michael R. Harvey to say the invocation. Councilman Kevin White tried to deny him an opportunity to speak, saying:

"We have never had people of an Atheist group represent Americans and I don't think it is appropriate in this setting."

He called for a vote to either find a different person to pray, or to bypass the invocation for this meeting. Different sources say that there was either one or two votes in favor; the vote would have had to be unanimous in order to take effect. White then walked out of the meeting, along with fellow council members Mary Alvarez and Rose Ferlita. The Tampa Tribune reported that Harvey spoke to the council, saying that his group supports the separation of church and state. He asked the board to seek inspiration from history, science and logic. The THIS is TRUE mailing list commented:

"Alvarez had previously gone on record that she 'looked forward' to hearing the atheist's invocation. 'It's a free country, she said then. Alvarez was the only one to support White's censorship attempt, but they were overruled by other council members....Who better understand what living in 'a free country' really means." 1,2

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2005-FEB: Chesterfield County, VA, rejects Wiccan priestess:

Cynthia Simpson, a Wiccan priestess, was informed that she could not lead the opening prayer at a Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors meeting. The county asserted that her beliefs as a Wiccan were not consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition. A trial judge ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny her the chance to deliver the invocation. The county has appealed the decision.

Simpson said that she was excluded because of a lack of understanding. She said:

"People just don't know about...[Wicca] and there has definitely been a misrepresentation of Witchcraft...I understand all that ignorance and confusion."

She plans to appeal the decision of the appeals court if it does not rule in her favor.

8 News referred to Simpson as "a self-proclaimed witch." We have found no evidence of the media outlet referring to Christians, Jews, Muslims etc. as "self-proclaimed." 3 More info.

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2006 to 2011: NC: Forsyth County board of Commissioners lawsuit concerning sectarian prayers:

In North Carolina, the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners governs an area that includes the city of Winston-Salem with a population of about 350,000 residents. They had a signup list and invited religious leaders to register to give an invocation before each meeting. Between 2007-MAY-29 and 2008-DEC-15, almost 80% of the prayers referred to Jesus. This triggered a request to stop sectarian prayers which led to a lawsuit: 4

  • 2006-OCT: Attorney Katherine Parker of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina (ACLU) wrote a letter to the Board asking that they discontinue "secular invocations."

  • 2007-FEB: Attorney Ayesha Khan of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (Americans United), made a similar request.

  • 2007-MAR: Janet Joyner, Constance Lynn Blackmon, and Osborne Mauck filed a lawsuit in federal court for the Middle District of North Carolina to force the board to stop their sectarian prayers. They were represented by attorneys for the ACLU and Americans United.

  • 2007-APR: The Board accepted an offer by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) -- a fundamentalist Christian legal defense group -- to defend the county at no cost. The vote was 4 to 3 to accept the offer; the four Republicans voted in favor; the three Democrats voted against the motion.

  • 2009-MAR: Rev. Steve Corts, chairperson of the North Carolina Partnership for Religious Liberty offered to provide money to the board to cover the ACLU's legal fees in the event that the Board lost the case. They raised $55,000.

  • 2009-OCT: U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Trevor Sharp heard oral arguments in the case. He recommended that the chief district court judge rule against sectarian prayers. He based this on prior cases before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which covers North Carolina.

  • 2010-JAN: Chief District Court Judge James A. Beaty ruled against the board. He issued an injunction that prohibits sectarian prayer.

  • 2010-FEB: After a public hearing, the board decided to appeal the case.

  • 2011-MAY: The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the case, Forsyth County v. Joyner, 11-546.

  • 2011-JUL: The Court of Appeals confirmed the decision of the lower court and prohibited sectarian prayer. The vote was 2 to 1. Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote for the majority, eloquently saying:
    "Invocations must consist of the type of nonsectarian prayers that solemnize the legislative task and seek to unite rather than divide. Sectarian prayers must not serve as the gateway to citizen participation in the affairs of local government."
  • 2011-AUG: The board voted 6 to 1 to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme court.  5

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2012-JAN-17: U.S. Supreme Court decided to not accept two appeals. 

Both the North Carolina municipal case described above and the Delaware school board case described in another essay were appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices declined to accept either appeal.

Katy Parker, legal director for the ACLU’s North Carolina chapter said:

"The law is now settled, and we are very happy that nobody in Forsyth County or anywhere else will feel like a second-class citizen because of what they believe." 4 

For the time being, it would appear that sectarian prayers in municipal government meetings and at school board meetings are considered unconstitutional as a matter of settled law.

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Methods by which municipalities may still be able to have invocations:

Two novel techniques by which a municipal council might be legally able to listen to an sectarian invocation have been suggested. Neither has been tested in the courts, but both may well prove to be constitutional if they were tried and challenged in court:

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Many municipal governments set aside time on their meeting agendas during which individual members of the public can address the council on any subject. Often a defined interval is specified -- perhaps three minutes. Debbie Borden, a resident of Huntington Beach, AC, suggested that a member of the public could give an invocation during this free time. She said:

"It's very important that the leaders of our city can turn to a higher power. The separation of church and state is to protect religions from the government, not the other way around."

The First Amendment would presumably guarantee the individual freedom of personal speech, and would allow them to give an invocation with any religious content.


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A council might schedule a time for an invocation at each meeting, and then select an individual to deliver it from a representative sampling of religious and secular groups which are active in their area. For example, they could invite, in sequence, a Roman Catholic priest, a member of American Atheists, a Southern Baptist pastor, a Humanist, a Wiccan priestess, a member of the local Ethical Culture society, and so on. By taking this approach, the municipality:

bullet

Would avoid recognizing one religious faith as more valid than any other faith or secularism.

bulletWould not promote religion above secularism.

bulletWould not promote secularism above religion.

However, it is doubtful that this approach would be acceptable to most religious and secular groups in most municipalities.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Andy Reid, "3 On Council Snub Atheist's Invocation," Tampa Tribune, 2004-JUL-30, at: http://tampatrib.com/
  2. "Well, by Golly," THIS is TRUE mailing list, 2004-AUG-8.
  3. "Witch Prayer Flap," 8 News, WRIC, Petersburg/Richmond VA, 2005-FEB-17, at: http://www.wric.com/
  4. Greg Stohr, "Prayer Cases Turned Away by U.S. Supreme Court Justices," Bloomberg, 2012-JAN-17, at: http://www.bloomberg.com/
  5. "Timeline of events in Forsyth County prayer case," Winston-Salem Journal, 2012-JAN-21, at: http://www2.journalnow.com/

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Copyright © 2003 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original publishing date: 2003-JAN-14
Latest update: 2013-AUG-13
Author: B.A. Robinson
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