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Posted October 16, 2012 | 69 Comments
Groups: Meeting prayers illegal
Shenandoah County supervisor chairman says board is not out to offend anyone
By Alex Bridges
Civil rights groups say the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors violate the Constitution by using Christian references in prayers before meetings.
Invocations given in the past four regular sessions by a member of the board included "Jesus" or "son," words attorneys say render a prayer Christian, which courts have ruled unconstitutional.
But while such Christian references have landed at least two other Virginia elected boards in hot water with rights groups, Shenandoah County supervisors Chairman Conrad Helsley said he's heard no complaints from residents.
"To my knowledge it's never been an issue," Helsley said recently. "I've never had a call in my years on the board concerning it. I don't know that we've really thought about it.
"Surely no one who gives a prayer is trying to offend anybody or any religion by any stretch of the imagination, but we just felt a prayer was appropriate before we started our meetings and we've continued to do that," Helsley said. "But we've never really tried to show favoritism for anything. I think if it had I would have heard it, but I feel pretty confident that no has complained, no citizens have complained the way we conduct our prayers."
Shenandoah County Supervisor Dennis Morris, in a prayer he gave last week, said, "we thank you for your son" and had made a similar remark at a previous meeting. Supervisor Richard "Dick" Neese made a similar remark in a prayer at an earlier meeting. Supervisors also have ended prayer with "In Jesus' name we pray. Amen."
The supervisors who normally give the prayer "are not out to offend anybody. They're just speaking from the heart," Helsley said.
But prayers that end "In Jesus' name we pray, amen," or use "son," and given at government meetings makes the invocation sectarian, according to representatives for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The legal experts say sectarian prayer goes against case law and violates the U.S. Constitution.
Rebecca Glenberg, legal director of the ACLU, said ending the prayer with 'In Jesus name we pray' renders it a sectarian prayer.
"If boards or councils do that regularly, they're violating the Constitution," she said by phone recently.
When asked about the issue, J. Jay Litten, county attorney for Shenandoah County, stated in an email he understood the significance of the issue.
"I'm sure any references to the 'son' or to 'Jesus' were inadvertent and just accidental reflections of the supervisors' personal faith," Litten stated. "I intend to remind them of the appropriate boundaries for prayer in public meetings, and I'm confident that they will stay within those boundaries."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation issued a complaint regarding the sectarian nature of prayers conducted at public meetings of the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors. The complaint prompted supervisors to reassess their policy, according to Glenberg. The ACLU chapter also sent a letter to Roanoke leaders recommending that supervisors refrain from using language in prayers that site any specific religion or to just lead a moment of silence.
"Religious is OK, but it's sectarian that's the problem," Glenberg said. "If it refers to a specific religion, usually Christianity, but any other religion, then the courts in this jurisdiction have held that's unconstitutional."
"If it's clear from the prayer that it's intended to be Christian, like if it talks about our savior rising, these lines are very difficult to draw," Glenberg added. "That's why we always recommend that government bodies choose a moment of silence because that gives them the opportunity to solemnize the meeting but does not involve them in these questions of what prayers are sectarian and what prayers are not."
The foundation fields numerous complaints usually from people who attend, watch or listen to meetings, according to Patrick Elliott, staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Wisconsin.
"I guess I don't find it surprising," Elliott said. "It seems to be an issue in a lot of government meetings and, as we've seen in the Roanoke Board of Supervisors, I would say a distraction from dealing with county business, you know, figuring out what kind of prayers, whether to give a prayer."
When asked whether ending prayer "In Jesus' name" as Shenandoah County supervisors have done breaks the law, Elliott agreed with Glenberg.
"It's unconstitutional," Elliott said. "If they're gonna continue to basically affiliate the board with one religious view, that's the issue we've seen in Roanoke and other areas as well."
Opening a meeting with a prayer or an invocation does not appear to violate the Constitution, according to Elliott.
"What matters is how they do that," Elliott said. "If they do that in sectarian terms, it's gonna be a problem no matter what they call it or what their policy is."
Conducting a moment of silence rather than holding a prayer remains the "safest" way to open a meeting, according to Elliott and Glenberg. Several local governing bodies and most school boards hold a moment of silence before their meetings. A few groups skip the invocation or moment of silence.
"I think [a moment of silence] also kind of allows everyone to pray or reflect in a way that makes sense to them and not as a government body figuring out how that's gonna somehow incorporate everyone," Elliott said. "That's kind of I guess more a policy question rather than a strictly legal issue."
In Roanoke County's case, a majority of the people may want a certain type of prayer given at meetings while a smaller group spoke out against sectarian language, according to Elliott.
"Thankfully, you know the Bill of Rights applies to minorities," Elliott said. "It's not a majority-rule kind of situation.
Steps to remedy the situation in Roanoke County drew protest from residents who wanted supervisors to keep prayer in their meetings, according to the Roanoke Times.
"The prayer issue is really kind of a national issue," Elliott said. "There are communities that deal with it and I think we're kind of proven right in the sense that it's very divisive."
A federal judge in U.S. District Court in Danville on Sept. 21 ordered Barbara Hudson and the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors to enter into mediation and attempt to resolve the complaint. Online court records indicate no lawsuit has been filed
"Local governments should just take a step back and say 'we're not going to delve into this religious issue' and either drop prayer and let people pray on their own during times they are not meeting or do the moment of silence," Elliott said.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or email@example.com