Tuesday, July 22, 2003

RICHMOND — The Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors is violating the U.S. Constitution by refusing to allow a self-proclaimed witch to open meetings with a prayer, the woman’s attorney told a federal magistrate yesterday.

A lawyer for the county disagreed, arguing that a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling gives the government wide latitude in offering legislative invocations that reflect the traditional values of a majority of its citizens.

Cynthia Simpson, 47, sued the board in December for refusing to add her name to a list of clergy invited to give the invocation at meetings. Miss Simpson practices Wicca, a religion based on respect for the earth, nature and the cycle of the seasons. Wiccans consider themselves witches, pagans or neo-pagans.

County Attorney Steven L. Micas told U.S. Magistrate Dennis W. Dohnal that the board is within its rights in requiring invocations to reflect “a monotheistic faith consistent with Judeo-Christian tradition.” If stripped of all control, he suggested, the board would have to allow invocations by the white-supremacist World Church of the Creator and other fringe groups.

The county is basing much of its case on the 20-year-old Supreme Court ruling that upheld the Nebraska Legislature’s session-opening invocations. Mr. Micas described that ruling as “an island in the sea of establishment of religion” case law.

Mr. Micas said the county’s policy passes constitutional muster as long as the government does not control the specific content of the prayers, and as long as the person giving the invocation does not proselytize or disparage another religion.

Miss Simpson’s attorney, Rebecca Glenberg of the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that her client’s exclusion from the list amounted to a disparagement of her religion.

“The policy on its face demonstrates a use of the prayer program that advances certain faiths and disparages others,” she said. “The core fact is Ms. Simpson was denied the opportunity to participate in this forum because of her religion.”

Magistrate Dohnal did not indicate when he would rule.

Miss Simpson said after the hearing that she filed the lawsuit after county officials refused to return her phone calls and made public comments ridiculing Wicca.

“This is my own local government discriminating against me on the basis of my religion. It’s not a private club or neighborhood association,” Miss Simpson said.

She said Wicca is a peaceful faith with some of the same elements as traditional American Indian religions.

“We’re strong as a nation because of our diversity,” she said. “There are pagans fighting for you at this moment in Iraq.”

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