Wiccan priestess Cyndi Simpson
A practicing witch who sought to have her prayers heard at government meetings in a Richmond, Va., suburb had no magic before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Justices rejected an appeal by Cyndi Simpson, a Wiccan priestess and member of the Broom Riders Association, who wanted to offer a generalized prayer to the “creator of the universe” in Chesterfield County, Va.
“I wasn’t going to talk about the goddess,” Simpson said previous to today’s decision. “I was going to call the elements, maybe offer up an invocation to the highest being.”
Simpson had argued that Christians and members of other faiths were allowed to provide invocations before county meetings, but she was being excluded because of her pagan, polytheistic beliefs.
Wicca is regarded as a natural religion, “grounded in the earth.” Followers of its many different forms generally believe all living things, as well as stars, planets and rocks, have a spirit.
American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Rebecca Glenberg said the county “issues invitations to deliver prayers to all Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders in the country. It refuses to issue invitations to Native Americans, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Wiccans or members of any other religion.”
Some 235 congregations, the bulk of which are Christian, were on the county’s approved list in 2003. The Islamic Center of Virginia is also on the list, and its imams have been involved in giving prayers occasionally.
In a letter of explanation to Simpson, County Attorney Steven L. Micas said, “Chesterfield’s nonsectarian invocations are traditionally made to a divinity that is consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
With help from the ACLU, which ironically often opposes most expressions of prayer at government events, Simpson sued and initially won before a federal court judge who ruled the county board violated Simpson’s constitutional right of equal and free expression of her religious beliefs.
The legal precedent covering most government assemblies is the 1983 Supreme Court case of Marsh v. Chambers, where justices noted:
In light of the unambiguous and unbroken history of more than 200 years, there can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society. To invoke Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, an “establishment” of religion or a step toward establishment; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country. As Justice Douglas observed, “[w]e are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”