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accessory prayer

Four days before the Giles County School Board formally agreed to their proposed settlement and took down the framed transcription of the Ten Commandments in Narrows High School, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which represented the plaintiffs, began a similar correspondence with the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors. The board maintains a tradition of sectarian prayers before its meetings, often by local clergy (who may discuss their own congregations as well) but not infrequently by individual volunteers.

The challenge is fairly routine. The current precedent was set in last July’s 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling on Wynne v. Town of Great Falls, in which Darla Kaye Wynne, a non-Christian, objected to the opening of town meetings with prayer that included such language as “Our Heavenly Father” and “In Christ’s name”. A district court ruled in Wynne’s favor and prohibited the town “from invoking the name of a specific deity associated with any one specific faith or belief in prayers given at Town Council meetings.” The 4th Circuit Court upheld the district decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the town’s next appeal. (Incidentally, Wynne was Wiccan, not irreligious.)

Regarding the Roanoke complaint, FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor reemphasized:

“Oftentimes county governments do things a certain way and it hasn’t occurred to them they are offending constituents or violating the law,” she said.

In the case of Roanoke County, Gaylor said her group would like officials to stop praying altogether, but at a minimum stop sectarian prayers. She said her organization was contacted by a resident who wants to remain anonymous.

The public (and even some media) reaction is illustrative of the Christian privilege that permeates our region. It’s most overt manifestation was the 5 July rally in Roanoke in support of the sectarian prayers at board meetings. And, as in the Giles case, the current complaint was not the first: “Roanoke also faced the issue in 2009 when a resident complained to officials about the use of prayer.”

For one overt example, the online outlet West of Roanoke gets the story wrong in its title:

Board of Supervisors Face Lawsuit For Praying

Wisconsin’s Freedom From Religion Foundation, the same organization that sued the Giles County School Board for posting a display of the Ten Commandments in school hallways is now threatening to sue another Southwest Virginia locality – This time over public prayer before Board of Supervisor meetings.

The FFRF, they claim, is suing over prayer itself — a falsehood that is not clarified later in the article. The fearmongering has become more subtle, but the message has not changed.

Susan Edwards, a representative of the 9th District Republican Committee of Virginia, organized the rally. Her comments included the standard case for religious freedom:

“It’s not a Republican or Democratic issue. It has to do with constitutional liberties and freedom,” Edwards said. “This has to do with religious freedom.”

Supervisor Butch Church echoed this assertion:

“We’re here to talk about our freedom of religion,” Church said as he welcomed the crowd, telling them the Freedom From Religion Foundation has “challenged our right to have prayer.”

These objections are also fairly routine. Arguments that confuse religious freedom with religious sponsorship, ostensibly compatible with church–state separation, supplement the more overt, but less legally tenable, arguments from tradition against government impartiality. They also echo the “intellectual freedom” argument increasingly popular with anti-evolution activists (as infamously popularized as the “Santorum argument“) and the “health freedom” veneer currently being invoked to shield some of the most popular medical scams.

As the Roanoke Times recently emphasized to the Franklin County Board of Supervisors, the precedent allowing meetings to open with prayer at all explicitly ends with sectarianism. And, as they point out, even impartial invitations to local clergy result in invocations that cater preferentially to the Christian majority:

After some residents filed suit, the board sought to establish its religious neutrality with a formal policy, taking prayer off the agenda, making it clear no county official would vet the content in any way and stating that the prayers were not intended to affiliate the board with, or express a preference for, “any faith or religious denomination.” The result: Jesus’ name continued to be invoked frequently, and one pastor added a little sermon.

Parallels to the Giles case are again unavoidable.

It’s heartening to see my own student group (geographically estranged) take a stand, and get it concisely and precisely right:

Free@VT is not against Board members holding or expressing religious views, nor are they opposed to religious leaders meeting with the Board to express the opinions of those clergy. Free@VT only requests that government officials do not endorse religious points of view in their capacity as government officials.

The FFRF has been growing very familiar with southwest Virginia, from their balanced pressure against government favoritism in Giles and in support of free expression in Floyd. I hope that this relationships grows steadily, especially with the inaugural arrival of lobbyists from the Secular Coalition for America to the commonwealth (all part of their diabolical plan). As a final illustration of the importance of such initiatives, consider this reaction from Liberty “University” (quotes earned) VP of Executive Projects Johnnie Moore:

“They clearly recognize Virginia is a state of great symbolic and national consequence,” said Moore. “Many Virginians would consider it a compliment that our state is so committed to the founding principles of our nation that we would cause alarm to an organization whose agenda is as radical as this one.”

(Source.) Parsing the nonsense is left as an exercise for the reader.

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