Thursday, July 24, 2008

4th Circuit Upholds City Council Mandate For Non-Denominational Invocations

Yesterday in Turner v. City Council of Fredericksburg, (4th Cir., July 23, 2008), the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of appeals upheld the policy of Fredericksburg, Virginia's city council requiring prayers which open its sessions to be nondenominational. In an opinion by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, sitting by designation on the case, the court held that legislative prayer is government speech. The city's policy was challenged by Hashmel Turner, a Baptist minister who was elected to city council. When his turn to offer an invocation came, Turner wanted to close by praying in the name of Jesus. The court held that council's policy precluding such prayer violates neither the Establishment Clause nor Turner's free exercise rights. The court concluded:
Turner was not forced to offer a prayer that violated his deeply-held religious beliefs. Instead, he was given the chance to pray on behalf of the government. Turner was unwilling to do so in the manner that the government had proscribed, but remains free to pray on his own behalf, in nongovernmental endeavors, in the manner dictated by his conscience. His First Amendment and Free Exercise rights have not been violated
In a release praising the decision, People for the American Way said that the ruling "is a vindication of the constitutional principle that the government must not take sides when it comes to religion." On the other hand, the Rutherford Institute which had represented Turner issued a release criticizing the decision, saying: "If the government can censor speech on the grounds that it is so-called 'government speech,' it will not be long before this label becomes a convenient tool for silencing any message that does not conform to what government officials deem appropriate." The Institute said it would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision.