Wiccans and Nonsectarian Prayer

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  April 13, 2007 — 1 Comment

The Winston-Salem Journal reports on a lawsuit between the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina (along with Americans United) and Forsyth County over their policy concerning prayer at county board meetings.

“The lawsuit challenges prayer practices at public meetings of the county board of commissioners. Commissioners invite various leaders to lead an opening invocation at their meetings twice a month. They do not dictate what speakers can and cannot say. In many cases, Christian leaders pray to Jesus or Jesus Christ.”

The article points out that two cases decided by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals involving Wiccans and public prayer are crucial to understanding how this case will most likely resolve itself. The first was the Cynthia Simpson case, in which a Wiccan tried to obtain equal access to a rotating panel of religious leaders who gave sectarian prayers at local board of supervisors meetings.

“The Fourth Circuit says it’s constitutionally mandatory for a public school to give students proselytizing Christian flyers, yet it’s constitutionally okay for a local government to refuse to hear nondenominational prayers from denominations its board members dislike. In other words, potential discrimination against a Christian evangelical group is verboten, but outright and public discrimination against a Wiccan, offering up nondenominational prayers, is perfectly fine. Common sense dictates that these two decisions cannot be sustained simultaneously – especially if equality is a principle of value.” – Marci A. Hamilton, law professor and author of “God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law”

In that case Chesterfield County was able to “win” by changing the prayers from sectarian to nonsectarian during the litigation process. The 4th Circuit ruled that so long as the prayers remained nonsectarian the list of religious leaders was inclusive enough and did not have to include Simpson.

The second case involved Darla Wynne, a Wiccan who faced incredible persecution when she asked that city council prayers in Great Falls, South Carolina either include other non-Christian faiths or become nonsectarian.

“Now keep in mind, I am still going to the meetings and dealing with their nonsense over my bumper stickers. Then one day, I stop bowing my head and the council waits for me to bow my head. They point out that some people won’t participate in the prayer and of course, everyone turns to look at me and comments are made such as, ‘Satanist. If you don’t like things the way they are leave. We don’t want your kind here.'”Darla Wynne

In that instance the 4th Circuit ruled that prayers had to be nonsectarian. Great Falls tried to appeal that decision to the Supreme Court and lost, forcing the city to switch to nonsectarian prayer.

So it look very likely that Forsyth County will either have to become fully inclusive with their sectarian prayer (thus opening it to Wiccans or anyone else), or will have to switch to nonsectarian prayer. A legal situation that could only have happened because modern Pagans stood up for full religious equality under the law.

Jason Pitzl-Waters