County officials in Virginia have apparently violated the constitution by designating which religious leaders can deliver prayers before public meetings, according to the state’s American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU sent a letter Thursday to the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors, which had limited opening prayers to ordained leaders of monotheistic religions.
“The First Amendment requires governing bodies to allow everyone the chance to deliver prayers before official meetings,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “If they don’t, then what they’re doing is unconstitutional.”
A state appeals court upheld the county’s policy in a 2005 ruling, and the board has invited local clergy whose names are drawn from an official county list.
Almost all of those religious leaders have represented Christian denominations, and the county has denied a Wiccan’s request to be added to the list.
Officials defended that decision, saying the “neo-pagan” faith does not fall within the Judeo-Christian tradition and “invokes polytheistic, pre-Christian deities.”
That claim led to a lawsuit by Americans United and the ACLU, but the groups say the board continues to exclude even some monotheistic faiths, such as the county’s Sikh congregation.
A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision permits local municipalities to open meetings with Christian prayer, but the civil liberties groups want to clarify that the ruling does not permit exclusion of non-Christian faiths.
“Since most of the invited clergy (in that case) were Christian, most of the prayers were Christian, as well,” the letter states. “The Court found that this was not by design; rather, ‘[t]he town at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver. Its leaders maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation.’”
The letter also said the requirement that religious leaders be ordained is problematic, because some religions do not require ordination – and some “do not have clergy at all.”