Federal Court Says that Virginia County's Prayer Policy Violates Religious Freedom Rules

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
November 13, 2003 12:00 am

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RICHMOND, VA — A federal magistrate here has ruled that the process by which the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors selects religious leaders to pray at the beginning of its meetings violates separation of church and state.

The case, Simpson v. Chesterfield Board of Supervisors, was filed last year on behalf of Cynthia Simpson, a Wiccan, who was told that she could not pray at the meetings because she did not practice a religion “within the Judeo-Christian tradition.” Simpson was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, with assistance from American United for Separation of Church and State.

“This situation demonstrates why state and religion should always remain separate,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “As the framers of the Constitution understood from their own experiences, when the state uses its vast power to endorse religious activity, it will always make losers of some faiths and winners of others. And that jeopardizes religious freedom.”

Willis noted that Wicca dates back several thousand years and is recognized by the U.S. military as well as the Internal Revenue Service.

In today’s decision, U.S. District Court magistrate judge Dennis W. Dohnal ruled that by preferring some religions over others, the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors is violating the constitutional mandate for separation of church and state and discriminating against Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and many other religions widely practiced in the United States. The judge ordered the County to change the policy to include all faiths or to stop using the policy altogether.

For many years Chesterfield County has opened its meetings with prayers, usually offered by clergy from Christian denominations. When Simpson asked that her name be added to the list of those allowed to pray at the meetings, she received a letter from County Attorney Steven L. Micas that included the following:

“Chesterfield’s non-sectarian invocations are traditionally made to a divinity that is consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Based upon our review of Wicca, it is neo-pagan and invokes polytheistic, pre-Christian deities. Accordingly, we cannot honor your request to be included on the list of religious leaders that are invited to provide invocations at the meetings of the Board of Supervisors.”

Lawyers representing Simpson are: Rebecca K. Glenberg, Legal Director, ACLU of Virginia; ACLU cooperating attorney Victor M. Glasberg of Glasberg & Associate; and, Ayesha Khan, Legal Director for American United for Separation of Church and State.

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