Federal Court Says Pittsylvania County Violated Citizen’s Religious Liberty with Meeting-Opening Sectarian Prayers

Danville, VA – Federal District Court Judge Michael Urbanski today ruled that the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors violated the First Amendment rights of ACLU of Virginia client Barbara Hudson by opening meetings with prayers that favored one set of religious beliefs over others.

“This ruling sends a clear message to localities that government officials may not impose their own religious beliefs on the entire community by leading sectarian prayers at public meetings,” said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg.  “The Supreme Court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals have ruled repeatedly that our right to religious liberty precludes the government from expressing favor for one set of beliefs over others.  It is, indeed, unfortunate that, given the clarity of the law, Pittsylvania County  officials would choose  to waste time and tax payer dollars in an unnecessary lawsuit, rather than simply conform their behavior to well-settled law,” Glenberg added.

“Despite the clarity of the law, we continue to receive too many complaints that public officials in cities and counties across the Commonwealth are engaging in government-sponsored sectarian prayers at public meetings,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Gastañaga.  “Local governments across the Commonwealth should take note of this decision and the thousands of tax payer dollars that will be spent paying our legal fees.  Legislative bodies may open their meetings with prayers if those prayers do not refer to particular religious beliefs or prefer some beliefs over others. Such a policy can, however, be very difficult to implement legally in practice.  That’s why we encourage localities that want to have an invocation to consider having a moment of silence.  A moment of silence can still solemnize the meeting by providing a brief period of reflection, and lets everyone who is present, both believers and non-believers, use the moment as they choose,” advised Gastañaga.

The controversy in Pittsylvania began in August 2011, when Ms. Hudson notified the ACLU that the Board of Supervisors began each meeting with a Christian prayer, delivered by Board members on a rotating basis.  The ACLU wrote a letter to the Board explaining that this practice violated the First Amendment under the clear precedents of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which state that government bodies must not engage in official sectarian prayers.

After the Board made clear that it would continue holding sectarian prayers, Ms. Hudson filed suit in federal court.  In February 2012, Judge Urbanski denied the County’s motion to dismiss the case, and granted a preliminary injunction to Hudson, forbidding the Board of Supervisors “from invoking the name of a specific deity associated with any one specific faith or belief in prayers given at Board meetings” while the lawsuit was pending.  Since the injunction was issued, the Board has been opening its meetings with silent prayer.

Judge Urbanski ordered the case to mediation in December 2012.  Following failed mediation efforts, Judge Urbanski issued his ruling on March 27, 2013.

In its opinion, the court enjoined the Board of Supervisors from repeatedly opening its meetings with prayers associated with any one religion, which practice has the unconstitutional ‘effect of affiliating the government with any one specific faith or belief.’

The court also noted that the decision did not “indicate a hostility toward religion or toward prayer.” Quoting the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Urbanksi wrote: “The founders of our nation, possessing faith in the power of prayer . . . led the fight for adoption of our Constitution and also for our Bill of Rights with the very  guarantees of religious freedom that forbid the sort of governmental activity which [the Board] has attempted here.”

Hudson was represented by Glenberg and by ACLU of Virginia cooperating attorney Frank M. Feibelman. The ACLU of Virginia will be seeking attorney’s fees and costs.

A copy of the District Court’s Memorandum Opinion can be found online at: https://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/20130327PittsylvaniaDistCtOpinion.pdf

ACLU of Virginia Contact:
Claire G. Gastañaga, Executive Director, 804-644-8022