A Setback for Sectarian Prayers (to Jesus)

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  July 30, 2011 — 13 Comments

There’s been quite a bit of discussion this year concerning when sectarian prayers in the United States are permissible in a governmental setting. We’ve had the drama of the “Wiccan-proof” prayer policy in Frederick County, Maryland, and Lancaster, California’s voter-approved sectarian policy, which has withstood one legal challenge so far. Both of these prayer policies are hoping that a stated commitment to broad inclusion will protect them from litigation, but a new ruling in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals seems to have thrown some doubt on the idea that simply saying you’re inclusive while showcasing predominantly sectarian Christian prayer is acceptable.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today ruled 2-1 that the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners’ preference for Christian prayers violates the constitutional separation of church and state. […] The record in the case indicates that 26 of the 33 invocations given from May 29, 2007, until Dec. 15, 2008, contained at least one reference to Jesus, Jesus Christ, Christ, Savior or the Trinity. The appellate court majority said government favoritism in religion is wrong. “Faith is as deeply important as it is deeply personal,” wrote Judge J. Harvey Wilkinson, “and the government should not appear to suggest that some faiths have it wrong and others got it right.”

If this ruling should withstand a Supreme Court challenge, it could change the tactics of groups like the Alliance Defense Fund, a main proponent of the inclusive sectarian model. They know that these sorts of policies favor the religious majority, typically Christianity, and that religious minorities will be drowned out in a sea of invocations to Jesus. A point brought up in the 4th Circuit’s ruling.

…the Board clarified that the prayers were “not intended, and shall not be implemented or construed in any way, to affiliate the Board with, nor express the Board’s preference for, any faith or religious denomination.” Instead, the stated goal of the policy was to “acknowledge and express the Board’s respect for the diversity of religious denominations and faiths represented and practiced among the citizens of Forsyth County.” Despite that language, the prayers repeatedly continued to reference specific tenets of Christianity. These were not isolated occurrences: between May 29, 2007 and December 15, 2008, almost four-fifths of the prayers referred to “Jesus,” “Jesus Christ,” “Christ,” or “Savior.”

What’s the problem with this? It creates a environment of intimidation and unspoken preference for one religious point of view in a place that is supposed to serve and be open to all citizens regardless of their religious preferences.

On Joyner and Blackmon’s account, the overall atmosphere made them feel distinctly unwelcome and “coerced by [their] government into endorsing a Christian prayer.” Blackmon claimed that she felt compelled to stand and bow her head because of the Chair’s instruction to stand and because of the audience’s response. Joyner offered a similar account, believing that if she had failed to comply, it would have “negatively prejudice[d] consideration of [her] intended petition as a citizen appearing for public comment.” Both characterized the prayer as sectarian, with Blackmon referring to it as including a “one-minute sermon.”

This puts into doubt the legal fig-leaf of Lancaster, California’s token inclusion of non-Christians. While the court ruled that the prayer policy of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners is not necessarily unconstitutional, the overwhelmingly Christian nature of the sectarian prayers helped “create an environment in which the government prefers — or appears to prefer — particular sects or creeds at the expense of others.” If your prayer policy is open, but 4/5’s of your prayers are to Jesus, then you’re creating an atmosphere of preference that (perhaps inadvertently) endorses one type of religiosity over another.

It should also be noted that the 4th Circuit’s decision referenced two cases they previously heard involving Pagans and prayer. Simpson v. Chesterfield County, the case that helped created the so-called “Wiccan-proof” prayer policy, and the Darla Wynne case, in which a Wiccan from South Carolina won a battle against sectarian government prayer. In fact, the Alliance Defense Fund’s “model invocation policy” was designed after these two cases involving Pagans and sectarian prayer earned national attention. So this is a new wrinkle of constitutional needle-threading that proponents of sectarian prayer at government meetings will have to address. The “include a Wiccan” gambit may not work if the rest of the prayers overwhelming endorse Christ. Will those who desperately want to invoke Jesus be able to stomach balancing that out with non-Christian prayers? Expect future challenges to address this very issue. Frederick County, Virginia may now technically be open to polytheist invocations, but they are under the 4th Circuit Court’s jurisdiction, so they better watch their balance.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Anonymous

    The Fourth Circuit, Goddess bless them, is notoriously conservative. If they have to find that prayer policies that result in prayers to the Christian God are prohibited, we may be on the road to progress.

    To be clear, the best policy, bar none, would be one that separated government functions from ANY prayers. I don’t want Columbia prayed to at government meetings. I want government meetings that have nothing to do with deity.

    Until we get there, Pagans need to keep demanding equal treatment, if for no reason other than that Christian horror at prayers to Pagan deities will quickly result in prayer-free meetings.

    • Exactly. This is why my spouse has decided to make his next military promotion be entirely areligious – not Christian, not Wiccan, not religious. He won’t even say “so help me God” at the end of his oath, because he wants to send a message that he, as a senior officer, is committed to the Constitution and the country, not a religion. I wholeheartedly support him and would rather see him do that than make a statement by bringing Wicca into it.

    • Agreed completely. For some reason, this whole governmental invocation thing reminds me of this little gem. It’s about prayer in schools, but the same principle applies, mutatis mutandis.

  • I’ve never understood why city councils, scout troupes and other such entities need to have a prayer at all. I understand the biblical prescription to be mindful of g*d in all things but I also find it patently foolish to think that an all powerful father-g*d like the Xians believe in would have any interest in whether maple street gets a four way stop or a light.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    In the interests of a neighborhood of the city I observed the meetings of the City Council of an inner-ring suburb for 12 years. They didn’t open meetings with any prayer, and they got through their business just fine. Not without dissent and politics, but I daresay the prayerful jurisdictions have that too. Prayer is not necessary to the functioning of a policy-making body.

  • Erynn Rowan Laurie

    As pretty much everyone else has said so far, the ideal answer to this is to dump the idea of invocations at all governmental functions. If people want to pray, they can do so silently and privately, just like they can anywhere else.

    For a religion where their god told them to go pray in a closet, they sure get off on the whole exhibitionism thing.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Back when I was a Humanist I was against all operning prayers at governmental meetings. When I became Pagan I revisited that, perhaps thinking it was salutary for city or county councils or school boards to acknowledge the pluralism of their communities. But the determination of these folks to ram the cross down everyone’s throat has driven me back to my earlier position: extend the wall of separation into council chambers.

  • I think allying ourselves with other slighted faiths in this matter would be wise. What about the Hindus and Buddhists? They seem notoriously absent as well. The larger a group complaining to local government of exclusion is, the more likely it is that some demands will be met.

  • If I remember correctly, didn’t one of the city councils that had adopted the “include a Wiccan” strategy actually have all its members walk out as the Wiccan in question was about to deliver the invocation? I would have thought that would have been prima facie evidence that it was just an empty ploy (at least in their case).

    • Of course it’s a ploy! They have utter contempt for the very idea of pluralism. They don’t believe in the very premise of separation of church and state and equality before the law. They’re quite honest about that in 99% of their day to day speech and writing. It’s only in court documents that they pretend to honor the spirit of the law, all the while flipping it the bird from behind their binders… They will never honor the spirit of the Constitution in this regard and will only follow the letter of the law to the bare minimum of what an individual judge orders, and only as a way of biding their time to a day when they can impose their order on us through dint of political maneuvering or “any other means necessary.”

      • Ursyl

        In too many cases, all too true.

  • *sigh* The solution is so mind-numbingly simple but they’ll never go for it, because actually enforcing a separation of church and state in such a way would prompt cries of ‘oppression’ and ‘moral degeneration’ and ‘they’re removing God from our HOOOOOOOMES! (AND CITY COUNCILS!)’

    So many evangelicals just don’t get that everybody else doesn’t WANT their god in their lives. They think they have carte blanche to whip him out at a moment’s notice because they’ve been part of the dominant religion for so long. I remember when I was a teenager in the process of converting to paganism, and my youth leaders were lamenting about how difficult it was to witness aggressively to people now that not everybody believed in their a priori suppositions. Apparently it used to be true that you could just ask someone “If you died right now, would you go to heaven or hell?” and that alone would prompt repentance from them. But these days, you’re just as likely to encounter someone who’d laugh at you and say, “There is no heaven/hell.” And isn’t it terrible that you can no longer obtain instant compliance by threatening someone with eternal torture? They’ve been steeped in privilege so long that losing it upsets their entire worldview.

  • I am also uncomfortable with the prayers offered on Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day, and the National Day of Prayer (which shouldn’t even exist). I stand respectfully on Memorial Day out of deference to the veterans in my community, but I know I’ll never hear a Pagan prayer at one of those events in my lifetime. I agree with Hecate and others that prayer has no place at government functions.