AU Protests After Va. Official Urges Prayer Objectors To ‘Leave The Room’

Americans United has protested a Virginia county official’s announcement that citizens who are offended by Christian invocations at board of supervisors meetings can “leave the room.”

AU attorneys wrote to the Campbell County Board of Supervisors Aug. 24 after Board Chairman Steven M. Shockley expressed support for sectarian prayers and advised dissenters to step outside.

During the board’s Aug. 2 session, the supervisors discussed a recent federal appeals court decision against persistently sectarian prayers at governmental meetings. Staff attorney Kristin B. Wright sent board members a memo advising them that the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled against the regular use of sectarian invocations in a North Carolina county.

Wright urged the Virginia local officials to avoid terms from one faith tradition such as “In Jesus’ name we pray.” (The North Carolina case, Joyner v. Forsyth County, is sponsored by Americans United and allies.)

Wright’s advice didn’t sit well with some board members. According to the Brookneal Union-Star, the supervisors criticized the ruling.

Addressing the citizens gathered in the room, Shockley said, “If you’re offended by the name of Christ or Lord and Savior, you are welcome to leave the room.”

Ironically, Supervisor Hugh Pendleton then gave the invocation, which was non-sectarian in content.

In its letter to the board, AU advised the supervisors that telling people they could leave the room during prayer is not acceptable and urged them to “be more sensitive to your non-Christian constituents in the future.”

“Simply asking those who might feel excluded or offended to leave the room during the prayers neither reduces the injury to those who object to the prayers nor prevents a constitutional violation,” wrote AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan. “Asking objectors to leave does precisely the opposite, making it crystal-clear that they are not welcome at the meetings of their own government.”

Khan told board members that court rulings do not allow sectarian invocations and urged them to adopt non-sectarian prayers or a moment of silence instead.

Shortly after Americans United sent the letter, it received a response from County Administrator David Laurell. He assured the AU Legal Department that Shockley and the rest of the board are respectful of persons of all faiths and are aware of the legal precedent in this area.