Court Upholds Fredericksburg, VA, City Council Policy on Prayer

Ruling rejects efforts by one Councilor to start meetings with sectarian prayer

Chief Judge James Spencer of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia has upheld the policy of the Fredericksburg, Virginia, City Council requiring that its official opening prayers be non-sectarian. The policy had been challenged by Hashmel Turner, a member of the City Council, who claimed that he had a free speech right to deliver the official Council prayer "in Jesus' name."

The Council’s prayers are given on a rotating basis by the Councilors themselves. After the Council formally adopted the non-sectarian prayer policy, Councilor Turner, represented by attorneys for the Rutherford Institute, brought suit in federal court in an effort to start the meetings with sectarian prayer. The court's ruling granted the City Council's motion for summary judgment, holding that the City Council's policy is permissible under the Constitution and does not violate Turner's rights. The City Council was represented in the case on a pro bono basis by the law firm of Hunton & Williams and by attorneys with People For the American Way Foundation.

"Hunton & Williams has a proud history of providing pro bono service in support of our communities," said Terence J. Rasmussen, an attorney with Hunton & Williams. "We are gratified that Judge Spencer recognized that Fredericksburg has the legal right to adopt a nonsectarian prayer policy."

Although the Supreme Court does permit legislative bodies to begin their meetings with prayer, the Court and the lower federal courts have made clear that those prayers must be non-sectarian. "Chief Judge Spencer’s opinion underscores that Councilor Turner's lawsuit was meritless," said Judith E. Schaeffer, Deputy Legal Director of People For the American Way Foundation. "The Council's approach is not only constitutional, it also reflects the fact that the Council represents all Fredericksburg residents, regardless of their faith."

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