Tuesday, August 9, 2005

RICHMOND — Civil liberties lawyers have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to allow a Wiccan priestess to offer prayers before a public board’s meetings.

Cynthia Simpson was turned down in 2002 when she asked the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors to add her name to the list of people who customarily open the board’s meetings with a religious invocation.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the suburban Richmond county.

In their petition, received by the court yesterday, American Civil Liberties Union lawyers accuse the federal appeals court of trying to “obscure with legal smoke and mirrors” Chesterfield’s preference for mainline religions.

“Although Establishment Clause jurisprudence may be beset with conflicting tests, uncertain outcomes and ongoing debate, one principle has never been compromised … that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another,” ACLU attorneys wrote in their 13-page filing.

County officials said they had the right to limit the prayers to Judeo-Christian beliefs and religions based on a single god.

Though many variations exist, the Wiccan faith is a generally a multi-deity religion with strong focus on Earth and seasonal cycles, also defined as a form of witchcraft.

“The First Amendment prohibits governments from having an official religion,” ACLU Virginia’s legal director, Rebecca Glenberg, said in an interview.

Chesterfield County Attorney Steven Micas was out of the office and not available for comment yesterday.

In 2003, a federal judge ruled the Chesterfield restriction unconstitutional. A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit in Richmond reversed that decision in April.

Miss Simpson’s battle mirrors a 2004 case in which Wiccan high priestess Darla Kaye Wynne sued the town of Great Falls, S.C., for specifying that prayers at government meetings invoke the name Jesus Christ.

A federal judge ultimately ruled in Miss Wynne’s favor. The appeals court later upheld the ruling — a decision ACLU attorneys initially thought settled the matter of meeting prayers.

But the court disagreed.

“Our case wasn’t specifically about the content of the prayers. It was about who was to give the prayers,” Miss Glenberg said. “They just didn’t think it was the same kind of case.”

Miss Glenberg called the case a question of whether government officials can cherry pick when it comes to religious matters.

“It sets a precedent for allowing the government to treat people differently based on their religion,” she said. “It’s that part that’s troubling.”

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