Chesterfield County, Wiccans, and sectarian prayer

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  May 29, 2014 — 11 Comments

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Vir.  — This story begins in 2002. Cynthia Simpson, a Wiccan and member of a local Unitarian Universalist congregation in Virginia, approached the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors to be included in a rotating lineup of local clergy who gave opening prayers/invocations at board meetings. Simpson was rebuffed by the County’s lawyer, saying that due to the “polytheistic, pre-Christian” nature of her faith they could not honor the request. So, starting in 2003, a lawsuit was filed.

Cynthia Simpson and Darla Wynne

Cynthia Simpson

“The Chesterfield County Board opens its meetings with an invocation given by invited local clergy whose names are drawn from an official list that the County maintains. Virtually all the clergy who have delivered invocations represent Christian denominations. The County denied our Wiccan plaintiff’s request to be added to the invocation list on the ground that Wicca is “neo-pagan and invokes polytheistic, pre-Christian deities,” and therefore it does not fall within “the Judeo-Christian tradition.” At the time of the denial, several of the county-board members made statements mocking the Wiccan faith. AU and the ACLU filed suit in federal court on December 4, 2002, alleging that disallowing non-Christian clergy from presenting invocations violates the Constitution. In November 2003, the district court held that the exclusion was unconstitutional. The defendants appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and in 2004 AU and its cooperating attorneys briefed the appeal. Oral argument was held on February 3, 2005. Unfortunately, we drew a very conservative panel (Judges Niemeyer, Wilkinson, and Williams) that, on April 14, 2005, issued a unanimous decision on the defendants’ behalf. The court reasoned that Marsh v. Chambers permits municipalities to limit prayer-givers to the Judeo-Christian tradition. We filed a petition for rehearing on April 26, 2005, but it was denied shortly thereafter. We filed a petition for certiorari on August 8, 2005, but it was denied on October 10, 2005, thereby concluding the case.”

Simpson’s case, and the Darla Wynne case (also a Wiccan), would go on to help advocates of public government prayer craft policies that ensured things stayed in comfortable Judeo-Christian territory so long as the prayers were not sectarian in nature. This “Christian only, so long as you don’t say ‘Jesus'” status quo (or the “Wiccan-proof policy” as I liked to call it) endured until the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway.

Supreme Court. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Supreme Court. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

“In essence the Court ruled that Greece’s prayer program was non-coercive and fully reflective of American historical tradition and the town’s own cultural heritage. If a legislative body employs sectarian prayer to “lend gravity” to its proceedings and does so in a way that is non-threatening, then religious prayer before a governmental meeting does not violate the Establishment Clause.”

While the SCOTUS ruling opens the door for sectarian prayers, it also notes that having a policy of full inclusion is constitutionally vital in such circumstances.

“Justice Kennedy writes the majority opinion for five Justices.  He concludes that the prayers are constitutional, because they aren’t overly sectarian or overly coercive.  It’s enough that the Town of Greece opened the prayer opportunity up to everyone, and allowed anyone to say anything.  It doesn’t matter that the prayers ended up being overwhelmingly Christian in tone and in number — that wasn’t the Town’s fault.  And it doesn’t matter that citizens attending these meetings may have felt pressure to pray — they had no solid reason to feel any such pressure.”

So the SCOTUS case that involved a sectarian Wiccan prayer, built on lower court decisions that involved Wiccan prayers, now comes full circle and returns to Chesterfield County.

ACLUVA_logo1“The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent county leaders a letter Thursday stating that the county’s policy must be changed to allow any person from any faith to pray before public meetings for the county to comply with the First Amendment. The county will consult with its attorney on that particular point, but County Administrator James J.L. “Jay” Stegmaier acknowledged that another portion of the policy prohibiting prayers specifically praising or opposing one religion appears at odds with the Supreme Court’s new guidance. In a shift from its previous guidance that prayers be generic, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the Supreme Court’s decision that local governments ‘cannot require chaplains to redact the religious content from their message to make it acceptable for the public sphere.'”

You can read the full letter from the ACLU and AU here.

So here is where the rubber hits the road on the Supreme Court’s prayer idealism. The notion that sectarianism within a government context is OK so long as it’s an open sectarianism. Can the court enforce a truly inclusive model, or will it fail on the local level as politicians and Christian activists scramble to find some way of enforcing a Christians-only policy? Will we finally see Cynthia Simpson give a Wiccan prayer in Chesterfield County, and if we do, does that mean that we’ve won a victory? Will inclusion bring acceptance and understanding, or will its symbolism only reverberate within our interconnected communities? Whatever happens, it looks like we might find out.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    What Paganism needs after the SCOTUS Greece NY decision is grit and the determination not to allow powers-that-be to pigeonhole us a second-class religion. The most important contribution a writer can make is up-to-date information. Thanks again, Jason!

  • Tina Clark

    I would much rather see people working to end all prayer in government meetings. We need to uphold the separation of church and state rather than trying to be included in ignoring it.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      That would be my preference by far, but this prayer before policy habit seems ineradicable. In the second-best world thus created, non-Abrahamics need to salvage as much as we can out of the non-establishment clause by insisting on inclusion.

      • Inclusion it is, then. Time for Pagans to stand up and ask to be included in leading prayers before their local governmental bodies.

    • Hecate_Demetersdatter

      One way to achieve separation of church & state is to have Wiccans, etc. giving public prayers. When the fundies object, it only helps gov’t players realize how simple life would be if there were simply no prayers at public functions.

      • kenofken

        The only way to win this thing is to hold these government bodies to the strict letter of the law in this ruling. I think someone else mentioned this in a piece shortly after the ruling. When it comes to prayer at meetings, the Court basically said governments have no obligation to uphold the establishment clause, but neither can they actively oppose inclusion. Hold them to it. Put in requests to say the invocation for local meetings. Many will try to play the “no jam to-day” game. Don’t let the bastards weasel anything. Get everything in writing – their policy for inviting ministers, their reasons for denying you a spot in the lineup etc.

  • Perhaps I am unduly cynical, but I can’t help but think that the real principle guiding American Constitutional Law on the question of Wiccans and public prayer is the “Jam Tomorrow” principle:

    “It’s very good jam,” said the Queen.

    “Well, I don’t want any to-day, at any rate.”

    “You couldn’t have it if you did want it,” the Queen said. “The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day.”

    “It must come sometimes to ‘jam to-day’,” Alice objected.

    “No, it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s jam every other day: to-day isn’t any other day, you know.”

    “I don’t understand you,” said Alice. “It’s dreadfully confusing!”

    Somehow, no matter what the alleged rationale for considerations around government and prayer, it always comes down to “Christians can, Jews might, Wiccans… never today.”

    • Hecate_Demetersdatter

      I have often believed six impossible things before breakfast.

    • GARIBALDI: No boom?
      SINCLAIR: No boom.
      IVANOVA: No boom today. Boom tomorrow. There’s always a boom tomorrow. What? Look, somebody’s got to have some damn perspective around here! Boom. Sooner or later. BOOM!

      Christy Marx (contemp.) American screenwriter Babylon 5, “Grail” (1994)

      I pair these two sequences together in one of my sigs.

  • Jennifer Locke

    I always thought the pledge of allegiance – while wholly unnecessary – could be considered enough of a prayer to begin a government meeting and am puzzled as to why people don’t just want to get on with things.