Prayer case heads back to court

Sen. Bill Stanley

State Sen. Bill Stanley filed a motion Thursday asking a federal judge to dissolve an injunction prohibiting Christian prayer at Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors meetings.

County officials, who have been involved in a three-year battle over public prayer, cited a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that 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.

Stanley, a Franklin County lawyer, said the Board of Supervisors’ position was validated by Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway, which recognized that legislative prayer that invokes a specific deity — whether Jesus Christ or any other — is permissible under the First Amendment.

The county also received a recent boost when a federal judge lifted a similar prayer injunction against Forsyth County, N.C.

The Forsyth case was a cornerstone of the American Civil Liberties Union’s argument in seeking an injunction against the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors.

“Since the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the people of Pittsylvania County three years ago to prohibit prayer from being given at the beginning of the meeting of the county’s board of supervisors, the members of the board have stood firmly against this unlawful intrusion,” Stanley said.

“The board members, rather than submitting to the will of one, have stood and fought for religious freedom at all levels, and, more specifically, their right to pray for guidance from their creator before they do the people’s business.”

Chatham lawyer Barbara Hudson and the ACLU sued supervisors in 2011 over opening government meetings with Christian prayer.

Hudson said the board’s prayers, which often mentioned Jesus Christ, made non-Christians feel unwelcome.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael Urbanski agreed and issued a permanent injunction in 2013 prohibiting supervisors from promoting any one religion in prayers.

Since then, supervisors have held silent prayer, and citizens have prayed — often in the name of Jesus — during the public-speaking portion of board meetings.

Supervisors also appealed after a federal judge ordered the county to pay the ACLU more than $50,000 in legal fees and costs.

But in December, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond unanimously dismissed the case, noting the appeal was filed late.

The Fourth Circuit also refused to revise Urbanski’s award of $53,229 in fees and expenses to ACLU attorneys.

Last week, the ACLU filed another motion seeking an additional $20,861 in attorneys’ fees and expenses stemming from the appeal.

The judge is expected to hear oral arguments before deciding on the injunction and additional fees.

Stanley said the Supreme Court decision represents a “binding precedent” on the district court to “free the board from an unjust injunction” on public prayer.

“Today is the first step in what we hope will be the total and complete vindication of the position they (supervisors) stood for three years ago,” he said.

“During this legal fight, board members have been told their cause was hopeless and their stand for religious freedom had no chance of success. Yet, they persevered, representing the will of the people and what they knew was true and right under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States,” Stanley said.


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