ACLU of Virginia Defends Fredericksburg’s Decision to Ban Sectarian Prayers at Open City Council Meetings
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia today announced that it intends to file a friend-of-the-court brief in defense of the Fredericksburg City Council’s non-sectarian prayer policy adopted in November of 2005.
“True religious equality can only exist when the government does not abuse its authority by promoting some religions over others,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “Public officials are certainly free to express their individual religious beliefs, but when they speak for the government, as they do when they open meetings with a formal prayer, they cannot express a religious preference.”
The ACLU of Virginia encouraged the council to adopt the non-sectarian prayer policy after receiving complaints from a Fredericksburg resident that one of the City Council members, Rev. Hashmel Turner, continually opened meetings with a sectarian Christian prayer. The ban on sectarian prayers drew the ire of the Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute, which sued the city council on Rev. Turner’s behalf, claiming that he was being denied the right to deliver the prayer of his choice.
“The ACLU would be the first organization in line to defend Rev. Turner’s right to express his religious beliefs, including during city council deliberations,” added Willis. “But in those moments when Rev. Turner is the voice of the government he must not misuse the power given to him to promote one religion and thereby diminish all others.”
The impending court action will likely bring to a close a controversy that began three years ago. Turner stopped participating in the prayer ceremony after the ACLU of Virginia intervened, then asked fellow members of the city council to adopt a policy permitting sectarian prayers. The city council, acting on the advice of Fredericksburg City Attorney Kathleen Dooley, voted instead to abide by rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals holding that formal prayers conducted at legislative meetings must be non-sectarian.
The city council has retained the services of the Virginia law firm of Hunton & Williams and the Washington-based organization People for the American Way, which will represent the city without charge.