Fredericksburg City Council Prayer Policy, Turner v. Fredericksburg (amicus curiae)

Fredericksburg City Council opens each meeting with a prayer, which is delivered by members of City Council on a rotating basis.  Traditionally, members give nonsectarian prayers.  However, when Hashmel Turner, a pastor, was elected to Council in 2002, he began offering prayers invoking Jesus Christ. A resident who frequently attends council meetings complained to Turner, causing him to stop participating in the prayer ceremony for a while.  When he started again, the resident asked the ACLU to intervene.  Turner responded to our first letter by ceasing to pray at Council meetings, but started up again sometime later. The ACLU then wrote the Mayor and all  members of City Council, promising to file a lawsuit if Countil did not prevent Turner from delivering sectarian prayers.  City Council then adopted a policy of requiring prayers to be nonsectarian.  Turner, represented by the Rutherford Institute, filed suit against City Council, claiming that the policy violates his rights to free speech, free exercise of religion, and equal protection.

The Supreme Court held in Marsh v. Chambers (1983) that it is permissible for legislative bodies to open their meetings with a prayer, but in subsequent decisions made it clear that such prayers must be nonsectarian.  In Wynne v. Town of Great Falls ( 2004), the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals relied on Marsh v. Chambers when it enjoined a South Carolina Town Council from opening their meetings with a sectarian prayer. 

Hunton & Williams and People for the American Way are providing legal representation to the City of Fredericksburg. The ACLU of Virginia is participating as amicus. On August 14, 2006, Judge James R. Spencer dismissed the case, ruling that the Fredericksburg City Council's prayer policy requiring its meeting-opening prayers to be non-sectarian is constitutional.  Turner appealed.  On December 8, 2007 the ACLU of Virginia filed an amicus brief in support of Fredericksburg City Council. The Fourth Circuit heard arguments on March 19, 2008. On July 23, 2008, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's ruling, which found the Council's prayer policy constitutional. Turner appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case on January 12, 2009.

Court Documents:
Opinion- Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (pdf)
Amicus Brief- Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (pdf)
Judge Spencer's Opinion- U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Virginia
Amicus Brief- U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Virginia

Attorney(s)

Rebecca K. Glenberg, ACLU of Virginia; Ayesha Kahn, Americans United for Separation of Church & State

Date filed

June 1, 2006

Court

U.S. District Court, Richmond

Status

Closed

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