Feb 26, 2013

By reciting a Christian prayer to open its meetings, the Brentwood, Md., Town Council has aligned itself with a single religion in violation of the U.S. Constitution, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has told a federal court.

In a lawsuit filed today on behalf of two residents of the community, Americans United said the council’s practice of beginning its sessions with the Lord’s Prayer transgresses the First Amendment.

“Government meetings should be welcoming to all residents, not merely to those who share the faith of their elected officials,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “In favoring one religious tradition over others, the town council is acting in an unfair as well as unconstitutional manner.”

According to the AU complaint, Brentwood Mayor Roger Rudder usually opens council sessions by leading a recitation of the Christian devotion. Council members rise, clasp their hands and bow their heads during the prayer. Those in the audience are asked to stand and join in.

Americans United attorneys wrote to Brentwood officials on April 16, 2012, and again on Sept. 13 to insist that the prayer policy be revised. The church-state watchdog group urged the council to end prayers altogether or, at a minimum, move to nonsectarian invocations as required by the federal courts.

Since AU’s initial protest, the council agenda was changed to call the invocation a “moment of silence and/or prayer,” but the council’s recitation of the Lord’s Prayer otherwise remains unchanged.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two Brentwood residents who object to the town council’s unconstitutional involvement with religion. One plaintiff, Dolores Pomerleau, is a Catholic who attends church services on a weekly basis; the other, Anne Christine Warden, is a Buddhist.

“I’m offended by the town council’s practice,” Pomerleau said. “By reciting the Lord’s Prayer, the council has co-opted my religious beliefs, which demeans my faith and strips the Lord’s Prayer of its religious significance. The practice also insults my religious belief in the validity of non-Christian religions by promoting Christianity over all other religions and demeans my religious beliefs by using my religion to exclude non-Christians.”

Said Warden, “The town council’s recitation of the Lord’s Prayer makes me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome at council meetings and suggests that the council does not represent Brentwood’s non-Christian citizens.”

Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan said, “We have tried to resolve this matter without a lawsuit, but the town council’s refusal even to respond to our letters has made this action necessary.”

Pomerleau v. Town of Brentwood was filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. It is being litigated by Khan and Conrad W. Varner of Varner & Goundry, with assistance from AU Madison Fellows Benjamin N. Hazelwood and Caitlin E. O’Connell.