Appeals court rejects Pittsylvania County appeal in government prayer case

constitutionA three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit today unanimously dismissed Pittsylvania County’s appeal from a lower court order prohibiting the Board of Supervisors from opening its meetings with Christian prayers offered by Board members.  The court held that the appeal could not be considered because it was filed over one hundred days late.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael F. Urbanski ruled in March 2013 that the Board of Supervisors’ prayer practices violated the First Amendment rights of Pittsylvania County resident Barbara Hudson, the plaintiff in the lawsuit filed by the ACLU Foundation of Virginia (ACLUF-VA) in 2011.  Before the lawsuit was filed, Board members took turns delivering the opening prayer, which was almost always explicitly Christian.  Audience members were asked to rise during the prayer.  The Board-delivered prayers have not taken place since February 2012, when Judge Urbanski issued a preliminary injunction against the practice, which was followed by the permanent order in March 2013 banning such sectarian government prayer.

The appeals court ruled that because the appeal was filed late, the court did not have jurisdiction to consider whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this year in Town of Greece v. Galloway, which also involved legislative prayer, would alter the outcome.

The Fourth Circuit also refused to revise Judge Urbanski’s award of $53,229.92 in fees and expenses to ACLUF-VA attorneys.  The court rejected the County’s argument that the fees were excessive, finding that the ACLUF-VA had submitted ample documentation to support the lower court’s conclusion that the requested fees were reasonable.

“We have maintained all along that this appeal was filed late, so we are very pleased with the appeals’ court’s decision,” said ACLUF-VA legal director Rebecca Glenberg, who argued the appeal.  “We hope that, rather than try to litigate this case further, the Board chooses to open its meetings in a way that  sends a message that all are welcome regardless of their religious beliefs or non-belief. When government has a religion, none of us is truly free to practice our own beliefs.”   Judge Urbanski’s injunction allows the Board to open its meetings with nonsectarian prayer or a moment of silence, but the Board has so far declined to do so.

The ACLUF-VA also praised the Fourth Circuit’s ruling on attorney’s fees.  “Without the federal statute allowing attorney’s fees for prevailing parties, many citizens whose constitutional rights are violated would not be able to afford to sue the government,” Glenberg said.  “Attorney’s fees are an important way to hold government accountable.”  Glenberg added that the ACLUF-VA will seek additional fees for time expended on the appeal.

The Fourth Circuit opinion can be read here.


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