Citing Supreme Court, Fourth Circuit precedent, court also denies County’s request to dismiss lawsuit

Danville, VA – Federal Judge Michael F. Urbanski today issued 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.”
Referring to opinions of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that have struck down sectarian opening prayers at local government meetings, Judge Urbanski wrote:  “Given the clear pronouncements of the Fourth Circuit in Wynne and Joyner, there can be little doubt that plaintiff is likely to succeed on the merits” of her claim that the prayers violate the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.  The judge found, “Every time the plaintiff attends a Board meeting and comes in direct contact with an overtly Christian prayer, she experiences a recurring First Amendment injury.”   He noted that the Board will still be permitted to engage in nonsectarian prayers.
Rejecting the suggestion that his ruling evinced “hostility” toward religion, Judge Urbanski quoted the Supreme Court:  “The Establishment Clause thus stands as an expression of principle on the part of the Founders of our Constitution that religion is too personal, too sacred, too holy, to permit its ‘unhallowed perversion’ by government.”
“Judge Urbanski recognized that clear legal precedents prohibit the Board of Supervisors from opening its meetings with sectarian prayer,” said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg.  “We are pleased that the Board will be restrained from this unconstitutional conduct while this case is pending.”
“This ruling reaffirms the principle that when government favors one religion over others, it violates the religious freedom of all,” added Glenberg.
In a separate opinion, Judge Urbanski denied Pittsylvania County’s request to dismiss the case.  A third opinion denied plaintiff Jane Doe’s request to remain anonymous, giving her thirty days either to appeal the ruling or disclose her identity to the court.
“Given the degree of anger this lawsuit has engendered in Pittsylvania County, we are disappointed that the judge did not grant our request for anonymity.  We are consulting with our client about how best to proceed,” said Glenberg.
The controversy in Pittsylvania began on August 16, when Glenberg wrote a letter to Board of Supervisors members asking them to cease opening their meetings with sectarian prayer.   The letter pointed out that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has repeatedly held that opening prayers at government meetings must not represent any one particular religious belief.  Most recently, in July, the Fourth Circuit struck down sectarian prayers at meetings of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners in North Carolina as unconstitutional.
Instead of complying with these clear rulings, the Board announced its determination to continue offering explicitly Christian prayers to open meetings.   At its meeting the same day that the Board received the ACLU’s letter, Board members offered five separate sectarian prayers.   The ACLU then filed suit against the Board on behalf of Jane Doe.
The opinion granting plaintiff’s motion for preliminary injunction can be found at: https://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/20120203PittsylvaniaGovtPrayerDistCourtOpinionPI.pdf.  The opinion denying defendants’ motion to dismiss is at https://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/20120203PittsylvaniaGovtPrayersDistCourtOpinionDismissal.pdf.  The opinion denying the request for anonymity is at https://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/20120203PittsylvaniaGovtPrayerDistCourtAnonymity.pdf.

Contact: Kent Willis, Executive Director, (804) 644-8022

Stay informed

ACLU of Virginia is part of a network of affiliates

Learn more about ACLU National