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Local church/state conflicts

Invocations at the Great Falls,
SC town council meeting

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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."

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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.

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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 " 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 decision.  1,2

"TG" the administrator of "the world's largest prayer board" on a Fundamentalist Christian web site 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.

  1. 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

  2. Darla Wynne is a Wiccan, and thus neither recognizes the existence of Satan nor worships him.

  3. "Satan" is a proper name and thus should be capitalized.

  4. 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.

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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

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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 anywhere."

  • 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. 5,6,7

On 2005-SEP-15, the U.S. District Court for South Carolina found that Wynne " 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 politicians. 8

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.

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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. "Appeals court upholds religious ruling. Town council meetings cannot open with mention of Jesus, judges say," Herald Online, 2004-JUL-23, at:
  2. Text of the ruling by the three judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals is online at:
  3. J.G. "Appeals court rules South Carolina City council prayers unconstitutional," prayer board, 2004-JUL-22, at:
  4. "Court refuses to hear Great Falls appeal on use of 'Jesus Christ' in council prayers," Associated Press, 2004-NOV-04, at:
  5. 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:
  6. 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:
  7. Personal communication from Darla Kaye Wynne.
  8. Cameron McGowan Currie, "Opinion and order awarding fees, costs and expenses," U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, Rock Hill Division, 2005-SEP-15.

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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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