State Sen. Bill Stanley, who is representing Pittsylvania County in its long-running court battle over prayer, believes a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision will persuade a federal judge to lift an injunction blocking the Board of Supervisors from praying in Jesus’ name at meetings.
Stanley filed a 25-page supplemental brief last week with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ordered additional written arguments regarding the impact of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway.
The New York case involved two residents — one Jewish and one an atheist — who sued Greece near Rochester, N.Y., in 2008 for allowing local ministers to open town meetings with Christian prayer.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court said that Christian prayer at government meetings does not violate the Constitution’s First Amendment ban on the establishment of religion.
Instead, a majority of justices said prayer is part of the nation’s heritage and tradition and is intended to lend gravity to public proceedings and acknowledge the place religion holds in the lives of many private citizens.
Chatham lawyer Barbara Hudson and the Virginia Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued supervisors in 2011 over the board’s practice of opening meetings with Christian prayer.
Hudson said the prayers, which often mentioned Jesus Christ, made non-Christians feel unwelcome and like an “outsider.”
U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski agreed and issued a permanent injunction against supervisors in 2013.
The judge later ordered the county to pay the ACLU more than $50,000 in legal fees.
In the brief, Stanley argued that the recent decision by the Supreme Court requires the court of appeals to reverse the district court judge’s ruling.
He also pointed out that, because Hudson’s claim against the board has “ultimately failed,” she and the ACLU are not entitled to attorneys’ fees from county taxpayers.
“Yesterday, we filed a supplemental brief with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that we believe will resolve the Pittsylvania County prayer issues once and for all,” Stanley said.
“The Supreme Court has demonstrated that Hudson’s and the ACLU’s position on this matter was flat wrong, and as a result, Hudson and the ACLU should not benefit from the error of their ways,” he said.
Stanley also filed a motion to dissolve the injunction at the federal district court level.
“We are confident that we will win on the merits of this case, and prove once and for all that the members of the Board of Supervisors and their tradition of an opening invocation did not violate the First Amendment of the Constitution,” he said.
“This is just another step in the fight to protect religious liberty, and I am proud of the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors for standing up for what is right.”
The ACLU countered with a motion opposing supervisors’ request to end the injunction, saying the county case is significantly different from the Greece decision.
While the Supreme Court held that governmental bodies my include sectarian prayers, “the court did not, however, give government bodies unlimited authority to engage in prayer in whatever manner they please,” said ACLU Legal Director Rebecca K. Glenberg.
Glenberg noted that the town of Greece invited clergy from all local religious organizations to deliver the prayer.
“Its leaders maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation,” she said.
“Pittsylvania County, by contrast, does not make its opening invocations open to all comers, but only to Board of Supervisors members,” said Glenberg.
Another key difference, according to the ACLU, is that Greece officials did not ask audience members to participate in prayer.
Supervisors, on the other hand, ask audience members to rise for the prayer, Glenberg said.
“Unlike in Greece, the facts of this case indicate that the board used its prayer opportunity to advocate for Christian beliefs before county residents,” she said.
The ACLU wants the injunction to stand or at least keep supervisors from “coercing any participation” in invocations, including by directing or requesting those present to stand, bow their heads, or otherwise indicate agreement with the prayers.
Since the injunction, supervisors have held silent prayer, but ministers and other residents have continued praying in Jesus Christ’s name during the hearing of citizens at board meetings.
Tunstall District Supervisor Tim Barber, who was chairman of the board when the ACLU lawsuit was filed, said the board’s prayers were not meant to offend or exclude anyone.
“In the end, God won out as I knew he always would,” Barber said. “Hopefully, now this motion to vacate the injunction allows the Board of Supervisors to get back to what we were doing before: having Christian prayer in Pittsylvania County.”