“If you don’t want to hear this prayer, you can leave” – Rural Virginia town loses fight with ACLU after opening board meetings with Christian prayer

by | Jun 2, 2015 | POLITICS

One rural Virginia town is on the losing side of a legal challenge after opening meetings with christian prayers and telling community members of non-Christian faiths “if you don’t want to hear this p

One rural Virginia town is on the losing side of a legal challenge after opening meetings with christian prayers and telling community members of non-Christian faiths “if you don’t want to hear this prayer, you can leave.”

U.S District Court Judge Michael F. Urbanski ruled Friday that the Pittsylvania County Board’s practice of opening public meetings with Christian Prayer is unconstitutional, and damning testimoney from the VA ACLU, who lead the challenge against the County Board, showed the damage being done. The case was brought to court and won by the civil liberties group over 2 years ago, but legal challenges by the Board pushed the case to the hire court which then ruled against the Christian-only prayer.

“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,” said ACLU of Virginia legal director Rebecca Glenberg. “We hope that the board will now stop fighting for the right to compose official government prayers for everyone at the meeting.”

Opponents to the ruling cite the Town of Greece v. Galloway case, where the court ruled the town did not violate the constitution when it invited local clergy to open public meetings with prayer.

That decision partially hinged on the invitation being open to clergy of all faiths.

According to the ACLU, the Pittsylvania county board members were quoted saying at least once, “if you don’t want to hear this prayer, you can leave,” in order to urge residents to participate in the Christian prayers.

“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,” said the court in the decision released last week.

Judge Urbanski wrote the distinction between the cases is in Pittsylvania, the line between government and religion is blurred. Pittsylvania board members personally gave the opening prayers.

Their control over content further separated their practices from those of Greece.

“It’s been a long hard battle, but when something that has been going on for hundreds of years, you have to fight,” said County supervisor Tim Barber in an interview with GoDanRiver.com.

Barber said Friday he was disappointed in the ruling, but would abide by it.

The moment of silence reflects the requirement of Virginia Public Schools to begin school days with a moment for reflection, prayer or meditation. That measure was approved by the Virginia Senate in 2000.

Current Board Chairwoman Brenda Bowman does not inherently oppose the moment of silence. “What has happened is that we as board members are not allowed to pray,” she told GoDanRiver.com.

The court decision comes on the heels of a Pew Research study published last month which said 35 percent of adult Millennials are religiously unaffiliated, a 12 percent increase from the generation before.

This segment of unaffiliated Millennials is larger than any religious identification Pew recorded in their generation. The only other increase exhibited by Millennials is a growth in other non-Christian religious groups.

“The 35% of Millennials who do not identify with a religion is double the share of unaffiliated Baby Boomers and more than three times the share of members of the Silent generation,” said Pew.

Legal director for the ACLU of Virginia Rebecca Glenberg said the ongoing battle has been “atypical.”

“In the past, I think that most government bodies are motivated to resolve matters quickly and avoid high costs,” Glenberg said.

The court of appeals 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, according to the ACLU.

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

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