A federal judge has ruled that, despite a Supreme Court decision earlier this year, an injunction issued in 2012 is still appropriate, barring members of Virginia’s Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors from opening meetings with prayer. The judge found the Pittsylvania situation differs significantly from the Supreme Court’s Town of Greece case earlier this year.
First and foremost, the prayer involved is offered by the council members themselves, and not potentially diverse clergy from the community, but there are other reasons as well.
Here is a clip from the judge’s opinion (pdf)(citations removed):
Not only did the Pittsylvania County Board members determine the content of the opening prayers at Board meetings, the Board members often directed the assembled citizens to participate in the prayers by asking them to stand. For example, on September 20, 2011, the Pittsylvania County supervisor delivering the opening prayer directed: “If you don’t want to hear this prayer, you can leave. Please stand up.” In Town of Greece, the majority opinion noted that such a request from the government makes a difference.
In sum, the active role of the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors in leading the prayers, and, importantly, dictating their content, is of constitutional dimension and falls outside of the prayer practices approved in Town of Greece. Thus, while Town of Greece calls for a limited modification of the existing injunction in this case, it does not support its dissolution.
In an early post after the Town of Greece ruling, I wrote that one important thing to know about the Supreme Court decision is that all 9 justices agreed that some limitation on government invocation is appropriate. They simply disagreed on where that line should be drawn.
Here, a judge has interpreted Town of Greece to suggest 2 circumstances that render legislative prayer unconstitutional: 1) where the council members themselves offer prayer, and 2) where the prayer directs citizens to participate.