CULPEPER, Va. At a recent town council meeting, Vice Mayor Pam Jenkins cautiously asked “everyone who is comfortable” to join in saying “Amen” for a community member who had just died.
Loudly, and with more than a hint of defiance, residents obliged.
Two months ago, leaders of this northern Virginia community reluctantly stopped their generations-old practice of opening council meetings with prayers after a federal appeals court ruled that invoking specific religions in public prayers is unconstitutional.
The ruling has snuffed traditional public prayers throughout the Bible Belt South, ushered in nondenominational prayers or a moment of silence in others, and left many officials confused over what is allowed. Some communities have defied the ruling and continue to recite Christian prayers.
The Supreme Court could ultimately decide the issue, if not end the debate.
“I think there’s a lot of confusion. Everybody’s afraid of getting sued,” said John Whitehead, president and founder of Virginia’s Rutherford Institute, a legal advocacy group that fights for religion’s place in society. The institute has fielded calls from public officials around the South seeking counsel on the ruling.
The American Civil Liberties Union contends, however, the public prayer divide illustrates the danger of mixing religion and government.
“Once government abandons its neutral position toward religion and tries to somehow accommodate all religions, it creates an almost impossible situation because some religions ultimately will be left out or be discriminated against,” said Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia.
The July decision was made by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.
The case, Wynne v. Town of Great Falls, involved Darla Kaye Wynne, a Wiccan high priestess, who sued the town of Great Falls, S.C., over its practice of opening meetings with prayers that specifically mentioned Jesus Christ. She said town leaders refused to open meetings with nonsectarian invocations or to allow prayers from members of different faiths.
A federal judge ruled last year that the town’s prayers were an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by government. The appeals court agreed, citing Supreme Court rulings that allow only generic prayers by government bodies.
The Great Falls Town Council voted Nov. 15 to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Those opposing the ruling cite Marsh v. Chambers, a 1983 Supreme Court decision that ruled legislative bodies can pray. But supporters of the 4th Circuit ruling argue the Marsh decision only permits nonsectarian prayer at public meetings.
The Rutherford Institute contends the decision does allow for sectarian prayer, as long as clergy from a variety of faiths are given the opportunity to offer prayers.
But the ACLU of Virginia says that would only be constitutional if every faith receives equal opportunity to pray a difficult balance to achieve for many Southern communities where Christianity is the prevailing faith.
Public prayers had been a prickly issue before the Wynne ruling, and they continue to stir controversy.
The ACLU began monitoring the Fredericksburg, Va., council after a resident complained about the use of sectarian prayers. The group has warned the city that it may face a lawsuit if such prayers continue at council meetings.
Because of that threat, Councilman Hashmel Turner said he is no longer permitted by his fellow council members to participate in their prayer rotation.
“I refuse to alter my prayer,” said Turner, a minister with the First Baptist Church of Love. “I would not compromise I would continue praying in the name of Jesus.”
The Dorchester County Council in South Carolina has continued to include “Jesus” in prayers at meetings. Randy Scott, who served as the council’s chairman until November, said the council would not be swayed by a court ruling.
“I just don’t see how one Wiccan in the whole state of South Carolina can stop the moral majority from saying Jesus’ name,” said Scott, now a state senator.
In the tiny Kentucky town of Stamping Ground, population 612, Mayor Jared Hollon has continued to cite Jesus in city commission meeting prayers despite warnings from the ACLU.
“This is something that, to me, has been part of the tradition of Stamping Ground,” Hollon said. “We believe it’s our freedom and our right to be able to do that.”
The ACLU said it only steps in when asked.
“We’re not the prayer police,” Virginia’s Willis said. “We haven’t assembled a group of volunteers to crisscross the state looking to see who’s invoking sectarian prayers but in those situations where there are people who attend meetings who are offended by the prayers, we will act on their behalf.”
The issue has taken on a personal edge for many members of affected towns. Prayer is an important part of life for the residents of Culpeper, providing a feeling of peace, said Councilman Chris Snider.
Culpeper resident Joe Coppedge, who has been regularly attending council meetings since 1989, agreed that prayer should be brought back.
“I don’t care whether you believe in God or not,” said Coppedge, who is not a member of any organized religion. “If it makes these people feel more comfortable, or if it makes them believe they can make a better decision, then they should.”