First Amendment topicsAbout the First Amendment
News Story
print this   Print

Va. city council's prayer policy gets backing of 4th Circuit

By The Associated Press

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.

High court turns away Va. council-prayer case
Lower court had ruled that minister's use of 'in Jesus' name' when ending opening prayers wasn't protected because it was government speech, not individual expression. 01.13.09

Federal judge tosses Va. councilman's prayer lawsuit
Court says prayers delivered at start of council meetings are 'government speech,' therefore cannot promote Christianity or any other specific religion. 08.17.06


Government-speech doctrine can make restrictions too easy

By Douglas Lee Two recent cases show how a usually harmless principle may be applied in ways that put free speech at risk. 07.30.08

When government prays, religion loses

By Charles C. Haynes Why anyone of faith would support ceremonial public prayers stripped of religious meaning is hard to fathom. 08.03.08

Legislative prayer

News summary page
View the latest news stories throughout the First Amendment Center Online.

Last system update: Monday, February 8, 2010 | 17:06:00
About this site
About the First Amendment
About the First Amendment Center
How to contribute
First Amendment programs
State of the First Amendment

Religious liberty in public schools
First Reports
Supreme Court
First Amendment publications
First Amendment Center history
Freedom Sings™
First Amendment

Congressional Research Service reports
Guest editorials
FOI material
The First Amendment

Lesson plans
Contact us
Privacy statement
Related links