Federal judge rejects Pittsylvania County effort to overturn ban on government sponsored prayer
In an opinion issued Friday in a case brought by the ACLU of Virginia, U.S. District Court Judge Michael F. Urbanski ruled that the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors’ prior practice of reciting Christian prayers remains unconstitutional. The judge modified his injunction against the prayers based on last year’s U.S. Supreme Court case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, but refused to dissolve the injunction altogether, as the County had requested.
“This opinion affirms that the First Amendment does not allow government officials to impose their religious beliefs on those who attend public meetings,” said ACLU of Virginia legal director Rebecca Glenberg, who represented Pittsylvania resident Barbara Hudson in the lawsuit against the County. “Since our initial victory in this case over two years ago, the Board has been opening its meetings with a moment of silence, which allows everyone to pray or not pray as they choose,” added Glenberg. “We hope that the Board will now stop fighting for the right to compose official government prayers for everyone at the meeting.”
“In addition to resolving this case against the County, the judge’s opinion illustrates how far off base proponents oflegislation offered in the 2015 session were in seeking to enshrine their broad reading of the Town of Greece case in the Virginia Code,” added Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia. “The judge’s ruling also affirms the wisdom of the Virginia Senate’s refusal to advance the legislation out of committee.”
In the Greece case, decided in May 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court said that a town did not violate the Constitution when it invited clergy from the community to deliver opening prayers at meetings. In that case, the Court emphasized that even though most of the prayers were Christian, the invitation was open to all faiths, and town officials had no control over the content of the prayers.
Pittsylvania County is different, Judge Urbanski wrote, because “the prayers in Pittsylvania County were delivered by the Board members themselves. In this setting, there is no distinction between the prayer giver and the government. They are one and the same.” The judge also noted that unlike Town Council members in Greece, Board members in Pittsylvania County directed audience members to rise, and on at least one occasion said: “If you don’t want to hear this prayer, you can leave. Please stand up.” The court explained: “The fact that the Pittsylvania County Board compels public participation in the prayers in addition to dictating their content compounds the problem and tends to create a coercive atmosphere.”
The previous injunction against Pittsylvania County, issued in 2013, prohibited the Board “from repeatedly opening its meetings with prayers associated with any one religion.” Judge Urbanski determined that this part of the injunction should be changed, because the Greece decision holds that sectarian prayers are acceptable when they are open to all and the government does not dictate the content of the prayers. The judge went on to write:
However, the practice of the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors of opening its meetings with prayer, the content of which is determined by the government itself, consistently invokes one faith tradition and does not provide an opportunity for persons of other faith traditions to participate, remains ENJOINED. In this fact-sensitive inquiry, the exclusive role of the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors in directing the prayers, and, importantly, dictating their content, falls outside of the prayer practice approved in Town of Greece and violates the Establishment Clause.
Pittsylvania County had attempted to appeal the earlier injunction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, but the appeals court dismissed the appeal because it was not filed on time. The court of appeals also affirmed an award of attorney’s fees to the ACLU of Virginia of $53,229.92, an amount that has now grown to $74,091.46.