Fourth Circuit Victory For Religious Liberty

If you read my post back in March after the oral argument before the Fourth Circuit in Turner v. City Council of Fredericksburg, Virginia, you know that it was quite an honor to have had retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the three-judge panel. And now Justice O’Connor has written the court’s opinion in the case, a July 23 unanimous decision in favor of our client, the Fredericksburg City Council.

As I’ve reported previously, the Council has been sued by one of its own members, Rev. Hashmel Turner, who claims that he has the constitutional right to deliver a prayer in the name of Jesus as the official Council prayer to start Council meetings. Never mind that this would make the non-Christian residents of Fredericksburg feel like second-class citizens when they attend Council meetings. Rev. Turner, who is represented in this case by the religious right Rutherford Institute, also claims that the Council’s policy requiring that its official opening prayers be nonsectarian (that is, not in the name of a specific deity) is unconstitutional. A federal district court judge soundly rejected those claims, and now the Fourth Circuit has rejected them as well.

As Justice O’Connor explained in the court’s opinion holding that the Council’s policy does not violate the Constitution, “[t]he restriction that prayers be nonsectarian in nature is designed to make the prayers accessible to people who come from a variety of backgrounds.” This does not mean, of course, that Rev. Turner’s own free speech or free exercise rights have been violated. To the contrary, as Justice O’Connor observed, Rev. Turner “remains free to pray on his own behalf, in nongovernmental endeavors, in the manner dictated by his conscience.”

Justice O’Connor’s opinion is a sound repudiation of the Rutherford Institute’s efforts to stand the First Amendment on its head. Unfortunately, it seems that the Institute is not listening; it has already announced that it will ask the Supreme Court to hear Rev. Turner’s case.

So stay tuned. In the meantime, I want to add my personal thanks to our co-counsel in this case, the very fine lawyers at Hunton & Williams.

PFAW