Back in May I wrote an article looking at the issue of opening invocations at various government bodies. At the center of that piece was discussion of a recently enacted policy in Maryland by the Frederick County Commissioners. The new policy was modeled on the one adopted by the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors in Virginia after they successfully survived a legal challenge by Wiccan priestess Cynthia Simpson. That policy, and the Frederick County Commissioners’ new policy, called for nonsectarian prayers, but only from members of established monotheistic faiths.
“Board members voted 3-to-2 on Thursday to invite religious leaders to attend their meetings to invoke “divine guidance” for the commissioners and their deliberations. The religious leaders must be ordained and affiliated with a monotheistic religion with an established congregation in Frederick County. Their prayers must avoid referring to any particular religion, denomination or sect.”
An NBC Washington headline called it the “Wiccan-proof prayer policy” and that spin must have caught the attention of County Attorney John Mathias, because the commissioners voted to alter the policy yesterday.
“They voted Thursday in Frederick to adopt changes recommended by County Attorney John Mathias. A key revision eliminates language allowing only those of monotheistic religions to offer the opening invocation. Mathias says such a restriction would have required the county to determine which religions are monotheistic.”
This is an interesting development. In theory, they should be on solid legal ground. Back in 2005 the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided that Chesterfield County’s policy was diverse enough, meeting the standards set by the Supreme Court in Marsh v. Chambers (though the Hindu American Foundation, The Buddhist Peace Fellowship, The Association on American Indian Affairs, and The Interfaith Alliance did not agree). So either this is a public relations move, or, they think that if this policy is challenged as-is it might not stand up in court. Considering the rather rah-rah “one nation under God” rhetoric of the original press release in May, I don’t think their hearts were suddenly moved by the absence of polytheists, or that they were worried over losing the critical polytheist vote in Frederick County (though they were contacted multiple times for comment by the DC bureau of the Pagan Newswire Collective). So it must mean that there is real concern, perhaps even outside Frederick County, that explicitly excluding non-monotheistic religions could ultimately bring down the “nonsectarian monotheist invocations only” house of cards in Chesterfield as well.
Now that Frederick County is open to polytheist invocation, at least in theory (one that I hope gets tested soon), perhaps it’s time for the ACLU in Virginia to return to Chesterfield County and begin building a new case. In the meantime, I applaud the Frederick County Commissioners for doing the right thing, albeit a few months later than I would have liked.