Rev. Hashmel Turner
U.S. Supreme Court justices have refused to intervene in a case that seeks to restore Christian references in prayers at city council meetings in Fredericksburg, Va., meetings, a decision that allows them to avoid overturning a former member of the high court bench: Sandra Day O’Connor.
“This is a very sad day for freedom of speech,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “This was a case that cried out for justice, but as Justice Thurgood Marshall once said, ‘Justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
The case involved Fredericksburg City Councilman Hashmel Turner, who was banned from ending prayers “in Jesus’ name.”
Rutherford attorneys asked the court to review and overturn the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision, which included an opinion by O’Connor asserting it is fair and reasonable to exclude “in Jesus name.”
O’Connor said the prayers actually were “government speech” and, therefore, not protected by the First Amendment. Rutherford lawyers said the city’s attempt to dictate the content of prayers violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment as well as Turner’s free speech and free exercise rights.
The organization said the appeals opinion already has sparked a “discriminatory backlash” in Virginia because of a state rule that state-trooper chaplains no longer could prayer in that fashion.
The O’Connor ruling, said the Institute appeal, “theoretically could permit a city council to prepare the text of an approved prayer and require any council members who wish to pray to read from the approved script.”
Such government demands, the appeal said, are “unprecedented in the history of this Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence.”
In fact, “It violates this Court’s outright prohibition on the government prescribing or proscribing the content of any prayer. It gives government unbridled authority to discriminate against religious viewpoints under the ‘government speeech’ umbrella without any accountability,” the institute’s appeal said.
U.S. Chaplain Gordon Klingenschmitt, who was removed from the military over the issue of praying “in Jesus’ name,” has worked to rally support for six Virginia State Police chaplains who resigned their chaplain posts rather than agree to stop praying “in Jesus’ name.”
State officials said they issued the order because of the appeals court decision.
The original dispute arose when Turner, a resident of Fredericksburg and a member of the town council, was part of a rotation of council members who took turns bringing a prayer at the council meetings. He ended his prayers “in Jesus’ name.”
Turner’s prayer, however, offended a listener, who prompted the involvement of several activist groups that threatened a lawsuit if the elected Christian council member continued to be allowed to cite Jesus’ name.
The city then adopted a non-sectarian prayer requirement, imposing a ban on any reference to “Jesus.”
“While [the] case is over, the issues it raised are far from resolved,” said the institute in an statement on the dispute, “which is why the battle for religious freedom continues to rage across the country.”
O’Connor said, “Turner was not forced to offer a prayer that violated his deeply-held religious beliefs. Instead he was given a chance to pray on behalf of the government.”
Not so, said Klingenschmitt.
“Actually he was directly forced to conform or face the punishment of exclusion,” he said. “Actually he was denied the chance to pray on behalf of that government.”
O’Connor wrote: “The restriction that prayers be nonsectarian in nature is designed to make the prayers accessible to people who come from a variety of backgrounds, not to exclude or disparage a particular faith.”
Klingenschmitt’s statement said: “Ironically, she admitted Turner was excluded from participating solely because of the Christian content of his prayer.”
WND reported only a few weeks ago that judges on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have used a case from Cobb County, Ga., to proclaim that praying “in Jesus’ name” is acceptable at county board meetings when other constitutional provisions are followed.
The decision leaves an unresolved conflict between the standards set up by the 11th Circuit and the 4th Circuit.