FREDERICKSBURG, Va. Despite a federal appeals court ruling and a reminder from civil liberties lawyers, a City Council member who is also a clergyman said he won't change the prayer he uses to open council meetings.
"As far as me altering my prayer, it's not going to happen," said Councilman Hashmel Turner, an associate minister of First Baptist Church of Love.
Turner regularly invokes the name of Jesus Christ when giving the opening prayer at City Council meetings.
The Washington Post reported in today's editions that Turner said he would not alter his prayer, but he might refrain from giving it. He was scheduled to give the opening prayer at tonight's City Council meeting.
On July 22, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in a South Carolina case that the practice of invoking the name of Jesus Christ at town council meetings amounts to an unconstitutional government advancement of one religion: Christianity.
In response, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia faxed a letter to Turner, other members of the Fredericksburg City Council and the city attorney, Jim Pates.
"An invocation at the beginning of a city council meeting is an official act of the Fredericksburg government," ACLU Executive Director Kent Willis said in the letter. "It must, as the Fourth Circuit has now mandated, be free of religious references in order to avoid sending the message to citizens that Fredericksburg prefers one religion over all others."
Last year, after a resident complained, the ACLU sent letters to Turner regarding his public prayers.
At that time, the ACLU had only an interpretation of the 1983 landmark Supreme Court decision prohibiting sectarian prayer during public meetings.
"Right now, this is the law of the land, and Rev. Turner will be in direct violation of the law if he continues to give sectarian prayers," Willis said, referring to the 4th Circuit case.
Last year, Turner stopped giving the invocation and had his name removed from an informal prayer rotation among council members after receiving the ACLU letters.
But after consulting with Charlottesville's Rutherford Institute, Turner said nothing prevented him from praying as he saw fit.
"If council decides my way of praying is not in line with the rules it intends to follow, then I'll stop," Turner said late last week. "But I'm not going to allow the dictations of others to determine how I pray. I pray based on my beliefs."
The Post reported that Pates said he was studying the 4th Circuit ruling and quoted him as saying, "We are not looking for a fight. We are not looking for a lawsuit."