Virginia Prayers Draw Fire From Foundation

“And we pray that the council would be given the compassion of Christ. Compassion to strive to make sure that each vote they cast is a vote for what is just and right. And it is in this name, the name above all names, that we offer our prayer. Amen.”

That’s how Rev. Bob Robinson of Portlock United Methodist Church ended his invocation April 28 to open the Chesapeake (Va.) City Council meeting.

In a Freedom From Religion Foundation complaint on June 5 to Chesapeake Mayor Alan Krasnoff, attorney Rebecca Kratz noted that Jesus Christ was invoked in every prayer during the months of March, April and May 2009, even though the council’s own rules require a “nonsectarian invocation.”

Kratz also noted that the Chesapeake complainant’s school-aged son was required to watch city council meetings for a social studies project, and was subjected to Christian proselytizing as a result.

Similar recent letters from the Foundation have gone to the mayors of Lodi, Calif., Philadelphia, Pa., Independence, Mo., Turlock, Calif., and New Richland Hills, Texas.

Ronald Hallman, Chesapeake city attorney, responded to the Foundation in a July 10 letter in which he cited cases he claimed support the constitutionality of the prayers. He denied that the prayers in question show preference to any one religion.

Kratz is working on a response to the city’s contentions and thinks that Hallman’s response gave undue emphasis “to the process the city uses to find prayer givers. We objected to the Christian nature of the prayers and the specific invocation of Jesus during those prayers, not to the selection process.”

Kratz said Hallman cited a case from the 11th Circuit when Virginia is in the 4th Circuit, which makes the precedent not binding in Chesapeake.

“The 4th Circuit has been very good about upholding policies that prohibit sectarian references, and did so in a recent case, Turner v. Fredericksburg,” Kratz said. “The city attorney ignores that precedent completely.”

Two Christian conservative groups —the Alliance Defense Fund and the Family Foundation of Virg­inia—have offered “free” legal aid to Chesapeake. The ADF wrote a letter to the city saying it’s “beyond dispute” that the prayers are legal. The Family Foundation intimated that FFRF challenged the city of Chesapeake because it’s in Rep. Randy Forbes’ congressional district. FFRF has criticized Forbes several times in the past

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia sent the city a letter in support of FFRF and taking issue with contentions the ADF made in its letter. ACLU’s conclusion: “The most straight­­­forward solution to this conundrum is simply not to have official, government prayers. Let private citizens pray as they wish. Let the government stay out of it.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation