Local church/state conflicts
Invocations at the Great Falls,
SC town council meeting
2003-2005: Prayers at the Great Falls, SC town council meetings:
According to HeraldOnline:
"Darla Kaye Wynne, a
Wiccan high priestess, sued the town [in 2001] 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."
U.S. District Court rules in favor of Darla Wynne:
U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan ruled in 2003-AUG that the prayers violated
the First Amendment's establishment clause. That
decision was later upheld by the appeals court, who cited a number of U.S.
Supreme Court rulings that determined that government bodies may only use
generic prayers; prayers specific to a single religion are unconstitutional.
4th U.S. District Court of Appeals rules in favor of Darla Wynne:
The town council voted unanimously to appeal the decision to the 4th U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals. South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster filed an
Amicus Curia (Friend of the Court) brief in support of Great Falls. A
three-judge panel of the Court rejected their appeal on 2004-JUL-22. The judges unanimously agreed that the town council's prayers
consisted of unconstitutional advancement of a single religion -- Christianity.
Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote:
"Public officials' brief
invocations of the Almighty before engaging in public business have always....been part of our
nation's history. The Town Council of Great Falls remains free to engage in such
invocations prior to council meetings. The opportunity to do so may provide a
source of strength to believers, and a time of quiet reflection for all....This
opportunity does not, however, provide the Town Council, or any other
legislative body, license to advance its own religious views in preference to
all others, as the Town Council did here." The court prohibited the
council from using the "...name of a specific deity associated with any one
specific faith or belief in prayers given at town council meetings." Prayers
at the Great Falls Council have not referred to Jesus Christ since that
"TG" the administrator of "the
world's largest prayer board" on a Fundamentalist Christian web site
Annointed.net posted a review of the court ruling. Under the heading: "We
must pray this judge who supports satan worshipers over us off the court" he
quoted part of Circuit Judge Diana Motz's decision as:
"Darla Kaye Wynne a satan worshiper brought this suit
to prohibit the Town Council of Great Falls, South Carolina from engaging in
prayers that specifically invoke Jesus Christ during monthly council meetings."
3 There are at least four
problems with this quotation.
The judge did not write that. The actual court decision
reads "Darla Kaye Wynne brought this suit..." "Satan" does not appear
anywhere in the text. 2
Darla Wynne is a Wiccan, and thus neither recognizes the
existence of Satan nor worships him.
"Satan" is a proper name and thus should be capitalized.
The phrase "a satan worshiper" should be separated
from the rest of the text with commas.
There were two replies to the posting on the prayer board. Both
pointed out the misquote. But the misquote has remained on the board, uncorrected.
Appeal to the full Court of Appeals
The full court refused to review the decision of its three-judge
panel. This confirmed the panel's decision.
Andrew Siegel, an assistant professor
of law at the University of South Carolina School of Law, says said that,
unless modified, the ruling applies to all government meetings in South
Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland. Barry Lynn,
spokesperson for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State,
said that other councils may face expensive lawsuits if they continue giving
sectarian prayers. 4
Appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court:
The Council then appealed to the
U.S. Supreme Court.
On 2005-JUN-28, the Supreme Court
declined to hear their appeal. The decision of the full
U.S. Fourth Circuit Court stands throughout the five state area.
Some responses to the Supreme Court decision:
- Darla Wynne said: "This sends a message that this
behavior is unacceptable." She said her victory made her feel a sense of
accomplishment for the "little guy." She claims that she has been
subjected to harassment, vandalism and violence since the case began. She
said: "I know they are trying to run me out of town, but I'm not going
- The town's lawyer, Michael Hemlepp, said that he will
suggest to the Council that they "obey the law."
- The councilperson who normally leads the prayers before the
council meeting, J.C. Broom, said: "The people down here wanted us to
continue the fight. Even the president's inauguration prayer mentioned
Jesus. I'm terribly disappointed."
- Great Falls Mayor H.C. "Speedy" Starnes said: "We have done
what the majority of people wanted us to do. I think the town was solid
behind us." Many people in the town of 2,200 signed petitions and attended
meetings which urged the council to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court.
- Andrew Siegel, a University of South Carolina law professor
and expert on Constitutional law, said: "The court in this case was
fairly clear this woman's freedom was being trampled by a legislative body.
They actively punished her and denied her full access to government because
she dared stand up to them."
- Herbert Buhl III, Wynne's lawyer, said that towns or boards
who now invoke the name Jesus Christ in prayers would violate a court order
and "would do so at their own peril." He said that the decision by
the state Attorney General's office to involve itself in the lawsuit was "for
political reasons -- to look like they were friends of Jesus."
- The Rev. Mike Sollers, pastor of the local Evangel Temple
Assembly of God said that JUN-28 was "a sad day in America. He said
that Wynne had sued "...for the purpose of stirring things up. The idea that
she did this for the town is absurd and ridiculous."
- Rev. John Paul Sellars, minister at Mount Dearborn United
Methodist Church said: "Even though the Supreme Court upheld this
ruling, no one has stopped us from praying. We may be stopped from verbally
expressing ourselves, but God knows our hearts and our minds."
- South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster expressed the
hope that "members of the federal judiciary will see things differently"
in the future.
- Responses by townspeople were mainly negative:
- Angel Blacketer, 32, said: "As far as I'm concerned,
she should never have been allowed to bring the suit. I think if you
want to pray and say 'Jesus Christ' you should be able to."
- Carlton Day, 78, said: "I don't think it's right with
her telling the council what to do. I think the council should be able
to pray the way they want."
- Willie Patterson, 60, said: "Jesus Christ -- that's
the only name given in the Bible that you can be saved by. So why not
use it at council meetings. The council meeting is for people to get
things together. You can't succeed at nothing without Jesus."
Wynne's lawyer has asked Great Falls to pay $65,491 in legal
fees. The town's own fees of $24,375 have been covered by insurance.
2005-SEP-15, the U.S. District Court for South
Carolina found that Wynne "...is entitled to an award of costs and expenses in
the amount of $1,791.91 and fees in the amount of $53,082.50 with fees and costs
to be assessed jointly against all Defendants in their official capacity only."
Thus, the town will have to pay costs, expenses, and fees, not the individual
The town is fortunate that Ms. Wynne only asked
for injunctive relief only plus actual costs and expenses. If she had asked that
the defendants pay a penalty for their violation of law, the town would have had
to pay out additional funds.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- "Appeals court upholds religious ruling. Town council meetings cannot
open with mention of Jesus, judges say," Herald Online, 2004-JUL-23, at:
- Text of the ruling by the three judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals is
- J.G. "Appeals court rules South Carolina City council prayers
unconstitutional," Annointed.net prayer board, 2004-JUL-22, at:
- "Court refuses to hear Great Falls appeal on use of 'Jesus Christ' in
council prayers," Associated Press, 2004-NOV-04, at:
- Andrew Dys, "Town won't put 'Jesus' in prayers. Wiccan's suit to keep
words out of Great Falls council's pre-meeting prayer upheld," The Herald
(Rock Hill, SC), 2005-JUN-30, at:
- Denyse Clark, "Great Falls prayer battle garners support of town. Wynne
says she's getting silent treatment after court ruling," The Herald (Rock
Hill, SC), 2005-JUN-30, at:
- Personal communication from Darla Kaye Wynne.
- Cameron McGowan Currie, "Opinion and order awarding fees, costs and
expenses," U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, Rock Hill
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