Challenge to Sectarian Prayer at Board of Supervisors Meetings (U.S. District Court, Danville). Filed September 16, 2011. Counsel: Frank Feibelman, cooperating attorney; Rebecca Glenberg, Tom Okuda Fitzpatrick, ACLU of Virginia.
At every meeting of the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors, a board member delivers an opening invocation. The prayer is almost always explicitly Christian; that is, it invokes the name of Jesus Christ. We wrote a letter to the Board of Supervisors explaining that courts have held that when a government body delivers an opening prayer, it must be nonsectarian, not favoring any one religion over others. In response, at its next meeting, the Board delivered five separate Christian prayers. On September 16, 2011, we filed suit against the county on behalf of Barbara Hudson, a Pittsylvania County citizen who regularly attends board meetings and objects to the prayer. The Board has moved to dismiss the case and has opposed our request for a preliminary injunction and for leave to proceed using pseudonyms.
On February 3, 2012, Judge Michael F. Urbanski granted our request for a preliminary injunction prohibiting the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors, “during the pendency of this case, from continuing its present practice of routinely opening its meetings with Christian prayers” and “from invoking the name of a specific deity associated with any one specific faith or belief in prayers given at Board meetings.” In separate opinions, the judge also denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss the case and our request to proceed using pseudonyms. The court hear arguments on both sides’ motions for summary judgment on September 21, 2012. The case was referred to mediation, which took place on December 6, 2012. Mediation efforts failed, and on March 27, 2013, Judge Urbanski ruled that the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors violated Hudson’s First Amendment rights by opening meetings with prayers that favored one set of religious beliefs over others. The court granted summary judgement in our favor, holding the prayers unconstitutional and permanently enjoining them.
On August 2, 2013, the Magistrate Judge recommended that defendants be required to pay attorneys’ fees. On August 26, 2013, the district court affirmed the award over the defendants’ objections. The defendants appealed. On December 17, 2014, the Fourth Circuit dismissed Pittsylvania’s appeal as untimely and affirmed the attorney’s fee award. Pittsylvania went back to the district court to request that the injunction be dissolved. On March 28, 2015, the court modified, but did not dissolve the injunction. The court also awarded additional fees to the ACLU for time spent on appeal.
Court Documents (click link to view .pdf)