The Campbell County Board of Supervisors holds sessions on the first Tuesday of each month in the basement of the Haberer Building in Rustburg, Va., and according to the board’s website, all meetings are open to the public.
But don’t expect to feel welcome there if you happen to hold the wrong views about religion.
At the Aug. 2 session, supervisors discussed a recent court decision against persistently sectarian prayers at local governmental meetings. Staff attorney Kristin B. Wright send the board a memo advising them that the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled against the regular use of sectarian invocations in a North Carolina case. She advised the county officials to avoid terms from one faith tradition such as "In Jesus' name we pray."
This sound advice didn’t sit well with its recipients. According to the Brookneal Union-Star, the supervisors quickly came to consensus against the ruling.
Addressing the citizens gathered in the room, Supervisor Steve Shockley said, "If you're offended by the name of Christ or Lord and Savior, you are welcome to leave the room."
Well, OK, then! So much for the constitutional principle of church-state separation! So much for America being a nation where all of us are first-class citizens no matter what our views about religion!
Supervisor Shockley seems terribly confused, not to mention arrogant and intolerant. He wasn’t elected to serve as pastor of Campbell County. The folks who show up at supervisors’ meetings aren’t his flock; they’re citizens there to see the public business done.
The U.S Constitution gives Shockley no power whatsoever to impose his personal religious beliefs on others in that room. On the contrary, the First Amendment forbids him to take actions “respecting an establishment of religion.”
And to think that this incident took place in Virginia, home of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the great stalwarts of religious liberty for all.
Eventually the issue of sectarian prayers at governmental meetings is going to make it to the U.S. Supreme Court again. The Alliance Defense Fund is getting ready now to ask the high court to hear the very 4th Circuit case that the Campbell County supervisors railed against. (In that North Carolina lawsuit, Americans United and our allies are representing local residents in Forsyth County who object to their county commission’s sectarian opening devotions.)
If the justices take the Joyner v. Forsyth County case, I hope they learn about Supervisor Shockley and his divisive, theocratic approach to government. I hope they realize that there are Shockleys all over the country who would love to get a green light from the Supreme Court for government-sanctioned religious bigotry.
Is that the kind of America we want to become?