- The Washington Times - Monday, August 11, 2008

COLUMN:

A member of the Fredericksburg, Va., City Council can no longer invoke the name of “Jesus Christ” in his prayers that open council meetings.

That decision by the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals represents the latest attempt by the courts to keep religious doctrine from influencing government policy.

The court doesn’t want to squelch all prayers by city councils, only the ones that “advance a particular religion.”

In the case of Turner v. City Council of the City of Fredericksburg, the religion was Christianity.

“So long as the prayer is not used to advance a particular religion or to disparage another faith or belief, courts ought not to parse the content of a particular prayer,” the court ruled.

In other words, God is in, but Jesus Christ is out.

The dispute arose from a lawsuit filed by Hashmel C. Turner Jr., a part-time pastor of First Baptist Church of Love and member of the Fredericksburg City Council. His religious beliefs dictate that he normally end his prayers in the name of Jesus Christ.

That would have been acceptable until Nov. 8, 2005, when the council adopted a policy requiring all legislative prayers to be nondenominational.

The American Civil Liberties Union had threatened to sue the council if words used in the opening prayers advocated a specific religion.

The Fredericksburg city attorney studied case law and determined council members could offer prayers only if they were nondenominational. The council adopted the recommendation in a resolution. Mr. Turner abstained from voting.

The next time Mr. Turner was offered a chance to say the council’s opening prayer, the city mayor asked him whether he intended to invoke the name of Jesus Christ. Mr. Turner said he would, prompting the mayor to skip over him and go to the next council member in the rotation.

Mr. Turner sued, saying the prayer policy violated his First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.

The federal appeals court in Richmond disagreed, saying “Turner’s argument misses the mark” on interpreting the First Amendment.

Mr. Turner says his next step will be an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It’s all about ‘in the name of Jesus,’” Mr. Turner said. “They say as long as I leave that out, I can say anything I want to say, and that’s not right. There’s a violation of free speech there.”

The relevant portion of the First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. ”

In recent years, the Supreme Court has resolved such church-state conflicts by using a “Lemon test” derived from the 1971 case Lemon v. Kurtzman.

Under the test, a law is constitutional if it has a secular purpose, neither advances nor inhibits religion and does not excessively entangle government with religion.

In the Turner case, the Fourth Circuit Court was trying to determine the extent to which the opening prayers were part of government business.

Before Fredericksburg’s 2005 prayer policy was adopted, Mr. Turner had prayed, “As we are about the business of this locality, we ask, Lord God, that you will cleanse our hearts and our minds that we make the right decision that’s best suited for this locality.”

The Fourth Circuit said the prayer’s connection with government is undeniable.

“We conclude that the central purpose of the council meeting is to conduct the business of the government, and the opening prayer is clearly serving a government purpose,” the court said.

As a result, Mr. Turner must keep his respect for Jesus Christ to himself.

Above the Law runs on Mondays. Call Tom Ramstack at 202/636-3180 or e-mail tramstack@washingtontimes.com.

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