Religious Right Using Lawsuit in Attempt to Undermine Church-State Separation

In 2006, the Rev. Hashmel Turner, a member of the Fredericksburg City Council, took the bizarre step of suing his own City Council. Councilor Turner’s complaint? As an elected government official, he wants the special right to begin City Council meetings by offering a City Council prayer in the name of Jesus — a sectarian, non-inclusive prayer that excludes many Fredericksburg citizens. The City Council, however, following the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent, wisely adopted an inclusive policy requiring that any prayers offered to begin its meetings be nondenominational.

So, represented by the religious right Rutherford Institute, Councilor Turner sued in federal district court — and lost — before a Republican-nominated judge who told his attorney at oral argument that “all the case law is against you.” But that has not deterred the Rutherford Institute, which has appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on Councilor Turner’s behalf and is using this case in an effort to get the issue before the Supreme Court. Clearly, the Rutherford Institute hopes that with the Supreme Court’s recent sharp turn to the right, the Court might ultimately take this case and use it to weaken church-state separation by allowing government officials — acting in their official capacities — to engage in sectarian prayer on behalf of government entities.

On March 19, the Fourth Circuit will hear Turner’s appeal. That court has previously ruled that the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent prohibit a town council from beginning its meetings with sectarian prayer. It should issue a similar ruling here, upholding the nonsectarian prayer policy of the Fredericksburg City Council, which has chosen inclusion over divisiveness.

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People For the American Way Foundation Legal Director Judith E. Schaeffer and the law firm of Hunton & Williams represent the Fredericksburg City Council in this case.

PFAW