Virginia Councilor Loses Jesus Prayer Lawsuit

A federal court has set back a Virginia town councilman’s crusade to offer sectarian prayers at public meetings.

Earlier this year, Fredericksburg City Councilor Hashmel C. Turner Jr. sued the city council over a policy allowing for only “non-denominational” invocations at its public meetings. Turner, a Baptist minister, on numerous occasions had given prayers invoking Jesus Christ. After the ACLU of Virginia complained, the council created a new a policy calling for non-denominational invocations.

In late 2005, the Fredericksburg mayor refused to allow Turner to offer a prayer after the preacher indicated he would not abide by the council’s prayer policy. In early 2006, Turner sued the city arguing that the prayer policy violated his constitutional rights.

In August, Chief U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer ruled in favor of the city council. Citing federal court precedent, including the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1983 ruling in Marsh v. Chambers, Spencer ruled that prayer before government bodies must not be sectarian.

“The Marsh Court emphasized,” Spencer wrote in Turner v. City Council of the City of Fredericksburg, “that although legislative prayers do not ‘establish’ religion, legislative bodies must ensure that any opening prayers are ‘nonsectarian.’”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the court to reject Turner’s case. The council member was represented by the Rutherford Institute, a Religious Right legal outfit.

According to Religion News Service, Rutherford President John Whitehead indicated that an appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit  Court of Appeals was being planned.