July/August 2012 Church & State | Featured


The New Testament says that the Lord’s Prayer was taught by Jesus to his disciples. Given its biblical origins, it is difficult to see it as anything other than a Christian devotion.

Fortunately for four plaintiffs in a Delaware lawsuit, a federal court recently agreed. 

U.S. District Judge Leonard P. Stark wrote in a May 15 ruling that the Sussex County Council’s practice of opening each of its meetings with the Lord’s Prayer probably violates church-state separation “because it constitutes government endorsement of the Christian faith.”

Issuing a preliminary injunction in Mullin v. Sussex County, Stark went on to note that “numerous courts have concluded that the Lord’s Prayer is a Christian, sectarian prayer.”

Said Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, “We were delighted by the decision. We thought we had a strong case, so we weren’t particularly surprised.”

Americans United filed the lawsuit in June 2011 on behalf of four Sussex County residents – the Rev. John Steinbruck, Barbara Mullin, Julie Jackson and Dr. William O’Connor. All plaintiffs in the lawsuit attended council meetings and were opposed to the governmental body’s promotion of one religious perspective.

Plaintiffs in the Mullin v. Sussex County lawsuitStepping forward in Sussex: Plaintiffs O'Connor, Mullin and Steinbruck

The council has opened its meetings with the Lord’s Prayer since 1971.

Even the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Religious Right legal outfit founded by TV and radio preachers, recognized that something was constitutionally amiss with the council’s tradition. Although the ADF didn’t represent Sussex County, it suggested that the council open up its invocations to include different prayers from a wider variety of religions, according to the Delaware Law Weekly.

The district court agreed that something just wasn’t right about government-sponsored prayers that exclude all but one narrow religious viewpoint.

In his decision, Stark wrote, “The fact that The Lord’s Prayer has been the only prayer recited at the beginning of council meetings for over six years is likely to be found to demonstrate that the council gives Christianity an unconstitutionally preferred status, sending a message to meeting attendees that the council is promoting the beliefs of Christianity.”

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said this decision should serve as a warning to other governments that open meetings with similar prayers.

“The Lord’s Prayer is a distinctly Christian religious exercise,” said Lynn. “Opening government meetings with that prayer – as the Sussex County Council did – violates the constitutional principle that government must not favor one religion over any other.”

As for the county, spokesman Chip Guy said council members are aware of the ruling.

“We, along with our legal staff, will be reviewing it to determine what our options are,” he said, according to the Cape Gazette.

The court has issued a 30-day stay of the preliminary injunction in the hope that a settlement can be reached out of court. Stark encouraged the county to make voluntary changes so that council meetings comply with the Constitution.

Khan, who is heading the mediation process for the plaintiffs, said, “We hope the case can be resolved amicably.”