Pittsylvania County Officials Lose Long-Running Fight to Pray to Jesus at Meetings

In 2012, the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors in Virginia began each meeting with a prayer to Jesus Christ.

An anonymous woman had sued the city in response — but a judge ruled that the only way for the lawsuit to proceed was if she revealed her identity.

In a country where atheists can get harassed for simply suggesting, “If people want to pray, they should do it privately, not on the taxpayers’ dime,” it’s no surprise the person wanted to keep her identity hidden.

But the lawsuit was too important and Barbara Hudson decided to shed the anonymity so the case could proceed:

The lawsuit against the board is not an attack on anyone’s religion, Hudson said. Supervisor-led sectarian Christian prayers during public meetings amount to government promotion of one religion over others. That creates a danger to everyone’s religious freedom, she said.

Why don’t the supervisors just pray to one God, with an all-encompassing invocation? Hudson asked.

“They could have avoided the whole thing by praying in the name of God,” said Hudson, who is not a Christian. “They want to promote their own version of religion.”

“I just think it’s very sad that the board of supervisors refuses to embrace the idea of God as a source of comfort and guidance, that it has to be sectarian religion,” Hudson said.

Hudson declined to reveal her faith.

“I think religion is a very deeply personal issue,” Hudson said.

(Well, it wouldn’t have been okay for them to pray to a generic God, either, but at least the lawsuit continued.)

After the Supreme Court ruled in Greece v. Galloway that sectarian prayers could be recited at government meetings, that should have settled the issue, right? After all, this was a sectarian prayer at a government meeting.

Not exactly. The Supreme Court ruling applied to citizens delivering a religious (or non-religious) invocation. In Pittsylvania, however, it was the government officials leading the prayer. Very different situation.

That’s what Judge Michael Urbanski told the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors:

Put simply, the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors involved itself “in religious matters to a far greater degree” than was the case in Town of Greece… In so doing, the prayer practice in Pittsylvania County had the unconstitutional effect, over time, of officially advancing one faith or belief, violating “the clearest command of the Establishment Clause… that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.”

The county officials were not happy with that ruling, so they filed an appeal. The Appeals Court ruled on the issue last December… and the county lost again.

However, it wasn’t on the merits (or lack thereof) of the case. They lost because they didn’t fill out all the proper paperwork in time.

And just to add well-deserved insult to injury, the ACLU, which had to do work on its end to fight the appeal, demanded that the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors pay up for wasting their time:

ACLU Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg said the group plans to ask for additional legal fees and costs generated from the time of the county’s appeal filed Sept. 18, 2013, to [December] when the appellate court rejected it.

“It’s up to the judge to determine what we’re entitled to and how much of it is reasonable,” Glenberg said…

At the time, the case had cost the county more than $50,000 in legal fees — and that was just to the ACLU. Throw in the additional fees the ACLU wanted, plus fees to their own lawyers, and this was just a colossal waste of time and money… all for wanting to pray to Jesus, something they can always do for free in silence or before the start of a meeting.

On Friday, Judge Urbanski issued his latest ruling on the matter — and this should really put the matter to rest once and for all:

Pittsylvania County is different [from Greece, NY], Judge Urbanski wrote, because “the prayers in Pittsylvania County were delivered by the Board members themselves. In this setting, there is no distinction between the prayer giver and the government. They are one and the same.” The judge also noted that unlike Town Council members in Greece, Board members in Pittsylvania County directed audience members to rise, and on at least one occasion said: “If you don’t want to hear this prayer, you can leave. Please stand up.” The court explained: “The fact that the Pittsylvania County Board compels public participation in the prayers in addition to dictating their content compounds the problem and tends to create a coercive atmosphere.”

Furthermore, the amount of money the County now owes the ACLU has since gone up to $74,091.46.

It’s times like these when you realize that Supreme Court “loss” in Greece v. Galloway was really a tremendous victory for church/state separation advocates across the country.

Congratulations to Barbara Hudson on her victory (again). It looks like the County will continue with the moments of silence they’ve been holding since Hudson’s first victory two years ago.

(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Scott for the link. Large portions of this article were published earlier)

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