Good News From Virginia: Pittsfield County Prayer Policy Struck Down

No prayer will ever make everyone feel included.

All victories on behalf of church-state separation are important, but some have a greater impact than others. Thanks to a recent legal win by Americans United and the North Carolina ACLU, a Virginia woman had the courage to challenge sectarian prayers at local board meetings.

Barbara Hudson, a resident of Pittsfield County, had for years been offended by the local board of supervisors’ practice of starting meetings with Christian invocations.

Court documents said these prayers were delivered by a rotating member of the board and almost always made explicit references to Christianity, usually by invoking Jesus Christ. The audience was asked to stand for the prayers, and both the board and the audience bowed their heads.

Hudson, who is Jewish, said she was afraid to speak up because of painful memories from her past in which she was persecuted because of her faith.

“Having had numerous relatives die in the Holocaust during my lifetime, and having myself been beaten up for being Jewish when I was a child, I was very wary of taking any action that would make me stand out for my religious beliefs, or that could be perceived as challenging the majority religion,” Hudson said, according to court documents.

But then something changed Hudson’s mind: the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Americans United and the ACLU of North Carolina in the case of Joyner v. Forsyth County, in which a government prayer practice similar to the one in Pittsfield was challenged.  

So Hudson decided to enlist the help of the ACLU of Virginia, and earlier this week, the Pittsfield County Board of Supervisors was told by a federal court that its sectarian prayers violated the U.S. Constitution.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael Urbanski noted the importance of keeping religion and government separate.

Quoting from Justice Hugo Black’s 1962  Engel v. Vitale decision, Urbanski wrote, “‘The Establishment Clause thus stands as an expression of principle on the part of the Founders of our Constitution that religion is too personal, too sacred, too holy, to permit its ‘unhallowed perversion’ by government.’”

Hudson’s attorneys were pleased with the decision.

“This ruling sends a clear message to localities that government officials may not impose their own religious beliefs on the entire community by leading sectarian prayers at public meetings,” said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg, according to the Augusta Free Press. “It is, indeed, unfortunate that, given the clarity of the law, Pittsylvania County officials would choose to waste time and taxpayer dollars in an unnecessary lawsuit, rather than simply conform their behavior to well-settled law.”

Unfortunately other local governments seem perfectly happy to waste taxpayer dollars in the defense of their misguided prayer policies. Fortunately, it doesn’t usually work out so well for them in court. This week, a board in South Carolina voted to revise its prayer policy under threat of litigation.

Even though courts don’t always come to the same conclusion about what sort of prayers are constitutionally acceptable and which ones aren’t, there is a clear bottom line in all these cases:  the best way for governmental bodies to welcome everyone is to drop invocations altogether. No prayer will ever make everyone feel included.  

Governmental meetings are intended purely for public business and were never meant to be places of worship.