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Ruling affects prayers
Sunday, May 11, 2014
By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer
A Martinsville City Council member said he will change how he prays during future meetings based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prayers at local government meetings can reference specific religious deities.
Vice Mayor Gene Teague said he now will mention Jesus Christ in prayers that he leads. As a Christian, he said, he feels it is important to do that.
Led by one of its members, the council prays shortly after the start of its regular twice-a-month meetings. Council members rotate in leading prayers which, based on City Attorney Eric Monday’s advice, have used generalized language that avoided sectarian references.
For example, in leading the prayer at the April 22 council meeting, Teague referred to “father” and “son,” not God and Jesus.
Teague said he has not mentioned Jesus directly in prayers because Monday told him “it would open us up to a lawsuit.”
“I didn’t want to subject citizens” to the city potentially having to dole out tax dollars in response to a suit, he said.
But now, “we’re no longer under the threat of a lawsuit” as a result of the court ruling, he said, so he feels comfortable mentioning Jesus.
Controversies have occurred in some communities over concerns that identifying deities of specific religions in prayers at public meetings would offend people who practice other faiths or who are not religious.
Lawsuits have resulted in some places, including Pittsylvania County.
Explaining the court’s 5-4 decision last week, Justice Anthony Kennedy said requiring clergy to remove references to Jesus Christ and other sectarian deities from prayers would turn officials into censors. Instead, he said, prayers should be seen as ceremonial and in keeping with national traditions, The Associated Press reported.
The ruling was in response to a lawsuit related to prayer practices at town meetings in Greece, N.Y., where clergy and lay people were selected to lead prayers. It does not specifically address prayers led by elected officials.
However, Monday said the high court’s ruling overrides a past ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit — which includes Virginia — that prohibited sectarian prayers.
Councilman Mark Stroud and Mayor Kim Adkins said the latest ruling will not affect how they pray aloud during meetings.
“I will continue praying as I have been ... to our Father,” Stroud said. He said the possibility of offending non-Christians “factors into” his decision.
“I feel that’s the way I ought to go for a while,” at least, he said, adding that he eventually might change how he prays if he determines it is appropriate.
Adkins indicated she will continue to pray in a similar way to Stroud. Although she is a Christian, she said she is “respectful of all religions.”
The Supreme Court ruling does not make it legal for government officials to, for instance, condemn people at their meetings for not praying or encourage people to participate in specific religions, Monday said.
Councilman Danny Turner said he asked to be excluded from leading prayers because he is “not an overly religious person.”
Councilwoman Sharon Brooks Hodge said that when she prays as a Christian, she concludes by saying, “In Jesus’ name, amen.”
But she, too, has chosen not to lead prayers at council meetings or in other public settings.
“For me, prayer is something private between me and God,” Hodge said.
The court’s ruling also will not change the prayer practices of the Henry County Board of Supervisors, according to Chairman H.G. Vaughn.
Led by a board member or another county official, the supervisors pray together just before their meetings are called to order, according to Deputy County Administrator Dale Wagoner.
Although an announcement is made that the supervisors are going to pray, “technically a meeting is not in session” when they do so, Wagoner said.
Therefore, “they can say it (a prayer) however they want,” he said.
“Anyone who doesn’t want to doesn’t have to pray with us,” said Vaughn, the Ridgeway District supervisor.
Christian references are sometimes made by supervisors, depending on who is leading a prayer, Vaughn said.
He noted that when he prays, he always asks it “in Jesus’ name.”
Vaughn acknowledged that county officials devised the way they pray to avoid a controversy.
The Supreme Court ruling “confirms that what we’re doing is OK ... as long as you don’t force your (personal) opinion” on anyone, he said.