May 15, 2012

A federal district court granted a preliminary injunction today blocking a Delaware county council from opening its meetings with a distinctively Christian prayer.

Ruling in Mullin v. Sussex County, U.S. District Judge Leonard P. Stark wrote that the Sussex County Council’s longstanding practice of opening each of its meetings with the recitation of a Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer probably “violates the Establishment Clause because it constitutes government endorsement of the Christian faith.”

“We are very pleased with the court’s decision,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “The Lord’s Prayer is a distinctly Christian religious exercise. 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.”

Americans United filed the lawsuit in June 2011 on behalf of four Sussex County residents -- the Rev. John Steinbruck, Barbara Mullin, Julie Jackson and William O’Connor. All plaintiffs in the lawsuit attend council meetings and were offended by the governmental body’s promotion of one religious perspective and disrespect of other faiths.

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.”

AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser, who argued the case before the court, hailed the decision.

"This ruling is a welcome reminder that government should never play favorites when it comes to religion," Luchenitser said.

The court has issued a 30-day stay of the preliminary injunction in the hope that a settlement can be reached out of court.

Along with Luchenitser, the case is being litigated by AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, AU Madison Fellow Brooke R. Hardy*, and Delaware attorney David L. Finger.

(*Admitted in Georgia only. Supervised by Ayesha N. Khan, a member of the D.C. Bar.)