- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2006

RICHMOND — A federal judge made no decision yesterday on a Fredericksburg City Council member’s challenge to the council’s nonsectarian prayer policy, but suggested he would rule against him.

The council adopted the policy last year after one of its members, the Rev. Hashmel Turner, insisted on invoking the name of Jesus Christ whenever he gave the invocation. Mr. Turner claims in a lawsuit that the policy violates his free-speech rights.

“All the case law is against you,” U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer told Mr. Turner’s attorney, R. Johan Conrod, at a hearing. “I’m not saying it’s impossible. I’m saying you have a steep hill to climb.”

Terence J. Rasmussen, an attorney for the council, said legislative prayers “are quintessential government speech” subject to the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause, which prohibits government promotion of one religion over others.

Mr. Rasmussen cited a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling striking down a South Carolina town’s practice of opening council meetings with prayers that mention Jesus. The court’s 2004 decision cited Supreme Court rulings that allow only generic prayers by government bodies.

Mr. Conrod argued that Fredericksburg’s prayers area “hybrid” of government and personal speech. Such conflicts historically have been resolved in the person’s favor because government cannot dictate the content of a prayer, he said.

“If I’m hearing you right, you’re saying a little bit of Jesus Christ is all right,” the judge said. “It doesn’t make sense. The right can’t be exclusive.”

The judge said that if Mr. Turner has an individual right to pray in the name of Jesus, other members have the same right, “then you have establishment of religion.”

Mr. Turner and the council asked the judge to rule in their favor without a trial. The judge said a trial would not be necessary and that he would rule soon on the motions for summary judgment.

Mr. Turner, a minister at the First Baptist Church of Love, was re-elected to a second four-year term in May. The council removed him from the prayer rotation after he refused to alter his prayer.

“If I’m allowed to go back, there will be no compromising,” Mr. Turner said after the hearing.

Asked about the judge’s questions and comments from the bench, Mr. Turner said: “He, too, will have to give an account to the real, true judge.”

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