A practice by the Pittsylvania Board of Supervisors of leading explicitly Christian prayers at the beginning of government meetings is unconstitutional, a judge ruled Friday.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael F. Urbanski ruled in favor of the ACLU of Virginia on behalf of Barbara Hudson, a resident who is not Christian. Hudson had initially tried to remain anonymous because she feared the “incendiary” reaction of supervisors, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The opinion “affirms that the First Amendment does not allow government officials to impose their religious beliefs on those who attend public meetings,” said Rebecca Glenberg, legal director of the Virginia chapter of the ACLU, in a statement. Since the initial ruling two years ago, the county board of supervisors had begun opening meetings with a moment of silence, “which allows everyone to pray or not pray as they choose.”
Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that sectarian prayers could be recited by members of the public at government meetings. But when elected officials lead prayers, it violates the Establishment Clause that prevents the government from favoring one religious denomination over another.
According to the ACLU of Virginia’s statement:
The judge also noted that unlike Town Council members in Greece, Board members in Pittsylvania County directed audience members to rise, and on at least one occasion said: “If you don’t want to hear this prayer, you can leave. Please stand up.” The court explained: “The fact that the Pittsylvania County Board compels public participation in the prayers in addition to dictating their content compounds the problem and tends to create a coercive atmosphere.”
The county had unsuccessfully tried to appeal an initial ruling in favor of the ACLU but lost because they didn’t file legal paperwork on time. After trying to foist Christianity on the public and incorrectly filing paperwork, the county owes the ACLU $74,091.46 in attorney’s fees now that the final decision has been issued.