RICHMOND, Va. A federal appeals court yesterday ruled against a priestess of the Wiccan faith who wanted to give the opening prayer at a local board of supervisors meeting.
Cynthia Simpson sued Chesterfield County after she was excluded from a list of religious leaders allowed to pray at Board of Supervisors meetings. In a letter to Simpson, the county explained that the invocations "are traditionally made to a divinity that is consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition."
Wiccans consider themselves witches, pagans or neo-pagans, and say their religion is based on respect for the Earth, nature and the cycle of the seasons.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court's decision that ruled in Simpson's favor. A U.S. District Court magistrate judge in 2003 ruled that the county's policy violated the Constitution by stating a preference for a set of religious beliefs.
"This isn't right," said Simpson, 49, a member of a local group known as the Broom Riders Association. "I've been a separation-of-church-and-stater all my life, long before I was a witch... . That's what was driving me all along."
Simpson said she would seek a full-court review of the decision.
The appeals court based its ruling in Simpson v. Chesterfield Co. Board Of Supervisors on Marsh v. Chambers, a 1983 Supreme Court decision that ruled nonsectarian legislative prayer is generally constitutional. The 4th Circuit wrote that Chesterfield County has done a good job of including leaders from a variety of religions to offer opening prayers and therefore abided by the Constitution by not advancing any one faith.
Last year, the 4th Circuit relied upon the Marsh decision to rule in favor of a South Carolina Wiccan involved in a similar case. Darla Kaye Wynne, a Wiccan high priestess, sued the town of Great Falls, S.C., over its practice of opening meetings with prayers that specifically mentioned Jesus Christ.
In that case, the appeals court ruled that the town's prayers were an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by government.
"The facts of Wynne, however, contrast sharply with those in the present case," the appeals court wrote in the Simpson ruling. "The County never insisted on the invocation of Jesus Christ by name, as the Town Council in Great Falls did. In fact, Chesterfield has aspired to non-sectarianism and requested that invocations refrain from using Christ's name or, for that matter, any denominational appeal."
Chesterfield County Attorney Steven Micas said the county was pleased with the decision.
"Chesterfield County's invocation policy was developed shortly after the Supreme Court of the United States established the Constitutional ground rules for legislative invocations," Micas said in a statement. "Our policy exceeds the inclusiveness standards set by the court."
The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which jointly filed the lawsuit on Simpson's behalf in 2002, expressed dismay.
"The court is allowing Chesterfield County to prefer some religions over others when it conducts its meetings' opening prayers," said Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia ACLU. "This runs counter to every notion our founding fathers had about freedom of religion and separation of church and state."
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said the 4th Circuit's decision shows "that bigotry is OK under certain circumstances."
"When government starts to involve itself with religion, it also has the right to choose which religions are legitimate in their eyes," Lynn said. "And that's a terribly dangerous proposition."