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Board chair: Prayer ruling allows flexibility

By Alex Bridges

The Supreme Court's ruling on prayer before government meetings could mean a return to traditional practice for area elected leaders.

The Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors and most town councils in the region open meetings with a prayer or invocation. Until a couple of years ago, the board's prayers occasionally mentioned Jesus or included other Christian references. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Monday that the content of prayers is not significant as long as the elected body make an effort at inclusion.

Supervisors Chairman David Ferguson says the board may not change its approach to invocations.

"I don't think we're going to do anything different than what we've been doing," Ferguson said. "I guess I will wait and see what the future holds but, as of now, I'm sure that our attorney will be more flexible as he gives guidance to us for those who indeed do offer up the prayer."

A lawsuit claimed that the town council of Greece, N.Y., discriminated against two women -- one Jewish, the other an atheist -- by having Christians give the monthly prayers for years through 2007. A district court sided with the town. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York sided with the women. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the town.

Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, and other state legislators from the region signed a brief filed in August by Harrisonburg attorney Rita Dunaway asking that the Supreme Court overturn the appellate court ruling.

Gilbert responded by email to the ruling, stating: "I am pleased that the Court recognized that freedom of religion does not necessarily mean freedom from religion. We in the House of Delegates will continue to enjoy our time-honored tradition of opening each session with a prayer."

Civil rights groups in 2012 argued that elected bodies violated the U.S. Constitution by using Christian references in prayers before meetings. Courts had ruled the use of "Jesus" or "son" in prayers unconstitutional though God and other more vague terms did not violate the separation of church and state.

Ferguson, who usually leads the invocation at the beginning of the board's meetings, said a previous ruling by a lower court regarding Christian references in prayers made him watch what he said in the invocations.

"I personally, yes, felt limited," Ferguson said. "I am a Christian and when I do my personal prayers I do pray in the name of Jesus Christ, my Lord and savior. So it limits you, when you are in a public body, from having the right to do so. This should allow us to have more freedom of speech in order to do that as we go forward."

The Supreme Court ruling may mean going back to business as usual for boards with invocations that often incorporated Christian references.

"I don't think this is a new concept," Ferguson said. "We deviated from it and now we're able to return to the practice."

Supervisors need to remain sensitive to the people who come before them at their meetings, Ferguson said.

"If we're sensitive to everyone, surely we ought to be able to continue what we've done and not offend anybody," Ferguson said.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com

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