Fourth Circuit Upholds Fredericksburg, VA City Council Policy Requiring That Legislative Prayer be Non-sectarian

Today, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit unanimously affirmed a lower court ruling upholding the policy of the Fredericksburg, Virginia, City Council requiring that the official prayers recited at the beginning of its meetings be non-sectarian.

The court's ruling came in a lawsuit filed by a member of the City Council, Rev. Hashmel Turner, who claims that he has a constitutional right to offer a sectarian prayer as the Council’s official opening prayer. As did the lower court, the Fourth Circuit rejected those claims. Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote the opinion for the Fourth Circuit panel that decided the case.

Observing that “the restriction that prayers be nonsectarian in nature is designed to make the prayers accessible to people who come from a variety of backgrounds,” Justice O’Connor wrote that “Council’s decision to open its legislative prayers does not violate the Establishment Clause” and does not abridge Councilor Turner’s First Amendment and Free Exercise rights.”

The City Council and Mayor were represented in the case on a pro bono basis by Terence Rasmussen and Robert Rolfe of the law firm of Hunton & Williams and by attorneys with People For the American Way Foundation. Councilor Turner was represented by the Rutherford Institute.

“Today’s ruling is a vindication of the constitutional principle that the government must not take sides when it comes to religion,” said People For the American Way Foundation Legal Director Judith E. Schaeffer. “The Supreme Court has allowed legislative bodies to begin their meetings with prayer, but only if that prayer is non-sectarian. As the court of appeals recognized today, any other rule would undermine church-state separation and the religious liberty it protects."

Wally Martinez, Managing Partner of Hunton & Williams, noted that "the results in this case reflect our firm’s deeply rooted pro bono commitment and ability to handle some of the most challenging and important cases."

The City Council’s prayers are given on a rotating basis by the Councilors themselves. After the Council formally adopted its non-sectarian prayer policy, Councilor Turner challenged the policy, bringing suit against the City Council and the Mayor. But Chief Judge James Spencer of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia rejected Turner's complaint and held – consistent with Supreme Court and lower court precedent – that legislative prayers must be non-sectarian, that Turner’s sectarian Council prayers were unconstitutional, and that the Council’s policy did not violate Turner’s rights. Councilor Turner’s subsequent appeal to the Fourth Circuit was rejected today.

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