RICHMOND, Va. — The Fredericksburg City Council's policy prohibiting a member from opening meetings with a prayer mentioning Jesus does not violate his free-speech rights, a federal appeals court has ruled.
On July 23, a unanimous three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Rev. Hashmel Turner's lawsuit challenging a nonsectarian prayer policy adopted by the council in 2005. The court said the policy does not violate Turner's rights because the prayer is "government speech," not individual speech.
Turner filed the lawsuit after the mayor refused to recognize him to open the meeting with prayer. Turner, an ordained minister and part-time pastor of the First Baptist Church of Love, had told the mayor he planned to pray in the name of Jesus Christ in keeping with his faith and in defiance of the new policy.
"Turner was not forced to offer a prayer that violated his deeply held religious beliefs," wrote retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who participated in the case as a visiting judge.
O'Connor wrote in Turner v. City Council that Turner was given the chance to pray on behalf of the government, but was not willing to do so within the government's guidelines. She wrote that he "remains free to pray on his own behalf, in non-governmental endeavors, in the manner dictated by his conscience."
The council implemented the policy after the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to file a lawsuit over Turner's sectarian prayers. Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU in Virginia, called the appeals court’s ruling a victory for religious freedom.
"Individuals are free to express their own religious preferences, but religious equality cannot exist when the government is allowed to use its considerable power to promote one particular faith," Willis said.
Turner was represented by attorneys for the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville-based civil liberties group that focuses on First Amendment and religious-freedom issues. The institute said it would appeal the court's decision.
"This ruling shows exactly how dangerous the government-speech doctrine is — it extinguishes free speech," said John W. Whitehead, the organization's president. "If the government can censor speech on the grounds that it is so-called 'government speech,' it will not be long before this label becomes a convenient tool for silencing any message that does not conform to what government officials deem appropriate."
The ruling affirmed U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer's August 2006 decision dismissing the lawsuit.