The Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors’ attorney, state Sen. Bill Stanley, is expected to file a motion asking a federal judge to lift an injunction on Christian prayer.

County officials, who have been involved in a long-running battle over Christian prayer at public meetings, cited a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that said Christian prayer at government meetings does not violate the Constitution’s First Amendment ban on the establishment of religion.

The Supreme Court 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.

The county also received a boost last month when a federal judge lifted a similar 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.

Backed by the ACLU, Chatham lawyer Barbara Hudson sued supervisors in 2011 over the board’s practice of opening meetings with Christian prayer.

Hudson said prayers, which often mentioned Jesus Christ, made non-Christians feel unwelcome and like an “outsider” or “second-class citizen.”

U.S. District Court Judge Michael Urbanski agreed and issued an injunction in 2012 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 appealed the case in September 2013 after a federal judge ordered the county to pay the ACLU more than $50,000 in legal fees and costs.

The ACLU countered that the appeal should have been filed after the judge issued a permanent injunction prohibiting supervisors from saying Christian prayers in March 2013.

Typically, both sides have 30 days to appeal following a judge’s ruling.

Last Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the appeals court unanimously dismissed the county’s appeal, noting the appeal was filed over 100 days late.

The appeals court said that because the appeal was “untimely,” the court did not have jurisdiction to consider whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this year in Town of Greece v. Galloway would alter the outcome.

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

The court rejected the county’s argument that the fees were excessive, finding that the ACLU had submitted ample documentation to support the lower court’s conclusion that the requested fees were reasonable.

“We have maintained all along that this appeal was filed late, so we are very pleased with the appeals’ court’s decision,” said ACLU legal director Rebecca Glenberg.

“We hope that, rather than try to litigate this case further, the board chooses to open its meetings in a way that  sends a message that all are welcome regardless of their religious beliefs or non-belief. When government has a religion, none of us is truly free to practice our own beliefs,” Glenberg said.

The ACLU also praised the ruling on attorney’s fees.

“Without the federal statute allowing attorney’s fees for prevailing parties, many citizens whose constitutional rights are violated would not be able to afford to sue the government,” Glenberg said.  “Attorney’s fees are an important way to hold government accountable.” 

Glenberg added that the ACLU will seek additional fees for time spent on the appeal.

Stanley said the decision isn’t a setback, noting the appeals court only looked at when the appeal was filed, not the merits of the case.

“What happened wasn’t unexpected,” he said.

Stanley has repeatedly questioned whether Hudson was actually offended by the board’s Christian prayers.

Over a four-year period, Hudson took “very public stand” on issues before the board, and filed numerous lawsuits either as plaintiff or legal counsel, he said.

Stanley said Hudson filed the prayer lawsuit after losing an appeal in a previous case and having to pay sanctions to the county.

“Hudson was an outspoken public critic of the board, routinely speaking to the press and writing numerous letters to the editor of the local papers,” he said.

Stanley cited letters to the editor in local newspapers in which Hudson compared the county to “third world country” and “ugga bugga land” and called supervisors “Bubbas,” “vampires,” and the “seven blind mice.”

“In my opinion, it seems like it’s all about revenge for Barbara Hudson and all about money for the ACLU,” Stanley said.

tim.davis@chathamstartribune.com

434-432-2791

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