Christian Prayers by City Illegal, Watchdog Charges

Chesapeake, Virginia Violation

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state/church watchdog, sent a strong letter of complaint to Mayor Alan P. Krasnoff of Chesapeake, Va., over the illegal practice of routinely hosting Christian prayers to open city council meetings. The letter was sent on behalf of a Chesapeake resident and taxpayer, and the Foundation’s about 300 Virginia members and 14,000 members across the country.

The local 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.

Although the city council’s own rules require a “nonsectarian invocation,” the practice appears to be that Christian clergy or officiants deliver Christian prayers.

Rebecca Kratz, Foundation staff attorney, noted that “Jesus Christ” was invoked in every prayer during the months of March, April and May 2009.

Typical was a prayer by Pastor James Edward III, of New Rose of Sharon Missionary Baptist Church, which ended: “And so we thank you for that blessing and all these blessings we ask in the name of the Father, the Son, and the blessed Holy Spirit. And the people of God will say, Amen.”

Kratz’ 4-page letter noted that “the prayers being offered before the Council’s meetings do not fall into the narrow exception of constitutionally permissible government-sponsored prayer laid out by the Supreme Court.”

In the 1983 Marsh v. Chambers decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that to be permissible, government prayers must be “nonsectarian, non-denominational, led by an officiant who had not been selected based upon any impermissible religious motive, and . . . addressed to the body of legislators present and no one else.”

The Fourth Circuit, which encompasses Virginia, has firmly weighed in against sectarian government prayer. Kratz cited the Wynne decision (4th Cir. 2004), and Turner v. Fredericksburg(4th Cir. 2008), both directly holding that the Establishment Clause was violated when a town council opened sessions with references to Jesus Christ.

This year the Supreme Court let stand the Turnerdecision written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (sitting on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals), in which O’Connor noted:

“[T]he restriction that prayers be nonsectarian in nature is designed to make the prayers accessible to the people who come from a variety of backgrounds, not to exclude or disparage a particular faith.”

Kratz wrote: “The City Council of Chesapeake cannot, under current law, permit any prayers that contain references to an explicit deity. The prayers currently given during Council meetings impermissibly advance Christianity and lead a reasonable observer to believe that the Council is endorsing not only religion over non-religion, but also Christianity over other faiths. Also raising grave Establishment Clause concerns is that school children in Chesapeake are sometimes subjected to these Christian-prayers.”

Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor called government prayer “inappropriate, and divisive.” Gaylor said: “Divine guidance is hardly necessary when deciding on such terrestrial matters as variances, building permits, sidewalk repair and sewers! Citizens of all religions or no religion are compelled to come before the city council on civic, secular matters and should not be subjected to a religious show or test. “

Foundation co-president Dan Barker, author of Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist and Godless, pointed out: “Christians who know their bible are familiar with the biblical injunction of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, who condemned public prayer as hypocritical and said: ‘Enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret’ (Matt. 6:5-13).”

“The Council’s practice of having Christian-based prayers during its meetings is illegal. This practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Supreme Court’s Marsh decision, and the Fourth Circuit’s Wynne and Turner decisions, all of which are binding upon Chesapeake City Council,” Kratz wrote.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., is a national association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) that has been working since 1978 to keep church and state separate.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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