CULPEPER, Va. — 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.
Two months ago, leaders of this Northern Virginia 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 out 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.
The Supreme Court ultimately could weigh in on 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 throughout the South, seeking counsel on the ruling.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) contends that 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, executive director of the Virginia ACLU.
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 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 last Monday 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 that the Marsh decision only permits nonsectarian prayer at public meetings.