The purpose of Our Conscience weblog is to facilitate a greater discussion and understanding of church and state separation in our community and in others. Underlying this is the value that each individual should be allowed to follow the dictates of his or her own conscience without influence, coercion, or direction from the State when it comes to matters of religion.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Richmond Times-Dispatch: Limit on prayer stirs the South

Our Conscience

Limit on prayer stirs the South
Supreme Court could end debate on mixing religion, government


Dec 13, 2004

CULPEPER - At a recent Town Council meeting, Vice Mayor Pam Jenkins cautiously asked "everyone who is comfortable" to join in saying "Amen" for a community member who had just died.

Loudly, and with more than a hint of defiance, residents obliged.

Several months ago, leaders of this community reluctantly stopped their generations-old practice of opening council meetings with prayers after a federal appeals court ruled that invoking specific religions in public prayers is unconstitutional.

The ruling has snuffed traditional public prayers throughout the South, ushered in nondenominational prayers or a moment of silence in others, and left many officials confused over what is allowed. Some communities have defied the ruling and continue to recite Christian prayers.
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The Supreme Court could ultimately decide the issue, if not end the debate.

"I think there's a lot of confusion. Everybody's afraid of getting sued," said John Whitehead, president and founder of Virginia's Rutherford Institute, a legal advocacy group that fights for religion's place in society. The institute has fielded calls from public officials around the South seeking counsel on the ruling.

The American Civil Liberties Union contends, however, the public prayer divide illustrates the danger of mixing religion and government.

"Once government abandons its neutral position toward religion and tries to somehow accommodate all religions, it creates an almost impossible situation because some religions ultimately will be left out or be discriminated against," said Kent Willis, Virginia ACLU executive director.
'I refuse to alter my prayer'

The July decision was made by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

The case involved Darla Kaye Wynne, a Wiccan high priestess, who sued the town of Great Falls, S.C., over its practice of opening meetings with prayers that specifically mentioned Jesus Christ. She said town leaders refused to open meetings with nonsectarian invocations or to allow prayers from members of different faiths.

A federal judge ruled last year that the town's prayers were an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by government. The appeals court agreed, citing Supreme Court rulings that allow only generic prayers by government bodies.

The Great Falls Town Council voted recently to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Those opposing the ruling cite Marsh v. Chambers, a 1983 Supreme Court decision that ruled legislative bodies can pray. But supporters of the 4th Circuit ruling argue the Marsh decision only permits nonsectarian prayer at public meetings.

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Blogger Seth said...

Of course it should read limit on "government" prayer stirs the south. The title reinforces the misconception that prayer by citizens is the target.

12:01 PM  

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