The Roanoke County, Va., Board of Supervisors may not change its current non-sectarian prayer policy to one that permits only Christians to deliver official invocations before meetings, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says.
In a letter sent yesterday to the board, Americans United advised that recent comments by board member Al Bedrosian suggesting that he would like to exclude non-Christians from offering pre-meeting invocations run counter to the U.S. Supreme Court’s May 5 ruling that permits local government boards to open their meetings with sectarian prayers.
“It’s no surprise that as soon as the U.S. Supreme Court kicked the door wide open for government-sponsored prayer, a local board would try to limit its prayers to Christians only,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “This is why the decision is so troubling, and I can imagine we will be seeing a lot of ‘Christians only’ talk from local boards.”
On Monday the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway that said the 1983 ruling in Marsh v. Chambers, which permits state legislatures to pay for official chaplains and open sessions with prayers, applies to local government as well.
In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy rejected the argument that government-sponsored prayers must be non-sectarian.
Kennedy did, however, imply that some limits may be imposed on prayer before government meetings.
“If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort,” Kennedy wrote. “That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court.”
That point seems to have been lost on Bedrosian, who reportedly said after the decision that “we’re a Christian nation with Christian ideology,” and that “we need to move toward our Christian heritage.” He also disparaged Wiccans and others, adding: “The freedom of religion doesn’t mean that every religion has to be heard.”
AU’s letter states that Bedrosian’s comments are a misreading of the Greece decision.
“In vowing to discriminate against non-Christians, Supervisor Bedrosian ignores what the Supreme Court actually said in Galloway,” the letter says. “Although upholding the challenged prayer policy, the Court also made clear that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits legislative bodies from excluding non-Christian prayer givers or otherwise discriminating in selection.”
Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper was highly critical of Bedrosian’s remarks.
"Supervisor Bedrosian’s stated goal – to impose Christianity on Roanoke citizens and to deny religious freedom to non-Christians – is un-American and unconstitutional,” Lipper said. “Because the Supreme Court’s decision in Greece v. Galloway prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, the Roanoke Board would be wise to reject his plans to place a ‘Christians-only’ sign on the podium.”
In addition to Lipper, the letter was written by Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and Staff Attorney Ian Smith. It asks for a response within 30 days.