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Virginia bill OKs prayers by Christians

Virginia bill OKs prayers by Christians

By Christina Bellantoni

March 1, 2005

Members of municipal bodies in Virginia will be able to say Christian prayers just before the beginning of their official meetings under a measure the General Assembly unanimously approved this session.

The measure, sponsored by Delegate Robert D. Orrock Sr., creates a period for "meditation" immediately before an official government body is called to order. The measure also allows local government officials to invoke the name of Jesus Christ and say sectarian prayers without violating the separation of church and state.

Mr. Orrock said the prayers will be protected by free-speech laws.

"Under the First Amendment, you can say whatever you want to say," the Caroline Republican said. "It's a minor modification of a long-standing practice."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia opposes the bill. Kent Willis, executive director of Virginia's ACLU, said the bill would allow local governments to circumvent a recent ruling by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals that prohibits sectarian prayers at the start of meetings. "Unconstitutional prayers will appear to be constitutional," Mr. Willis said.

Last year, the 4th Circuit Court unanimously ruled that the practice of town council meetings beginning with a prayer that includes references to Jesus in South Carolina was an unconstitutional government advancement of a single religion.

The ruling came after a Wiccan high priestess sued the town council of Great Falls, S.C., because its leaders refused to lead prayers that didn't invoke a single religion or to allow members of different faiths to lead the prayers. The woman, who regularly attended the meetings, had said she was ostracized for refusing to stand and bow her head during the Christian prayers.

The ruling also led council members in Culpeper, Va., who for decades allowed local ministers to give prayers, to start their meetings with a moment of silence in August when they were advised that those leading the prayers should avoid any references to Jesus.

Mr. Orrock's measure is headed to Gov. Mark Warner. Yesterday, the governor's staff said the measure is under review. Mr. Warner, a Democrat, has a month to review all the bills approved by the state legislature. If the governor signs the measure, any governing body in Virginia will be able to give sectarian prayers before a meeting officially begins.

Mr. Warner also can propose an amendment to the bill or veto it. The Republican-controlled legislature will consider his vetoes and amendments April 6. The issue came up over the summer when a council member in Fredericksburg, Va., opened a meeting with a Christian prayer. His actions drew criticism from some local residents and the ACLU.

Critics argued that the prayers gave the impression that the government prefers one religion over others. The ACLU said it violated the 4th Circuit Court ruling, which applies to legislative bodies in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and the Carolinas.

Fredericksburg City Council member Hashmel C. Turner Jr., who is an associate minister at the First Baptist Church of Love, defied the court's ruling and continued to lead a prayer that mentioned Jesus. After further criticism, Mr. Turner stopped giving the prayers.

Mr. Turner said yesterday with the legislature's actions, he will now ask the council to put his name back on the rotating list of members who pray before meetings.

"It seems like there is victory in the air," he said. Mr. Orrock said he disagrees with the 4th Circuit Court ruling, and that he hopes his bill clarifies the issue for municipal bodies. His bill does not dictate the type of religion that can be used in prayer.

He said his bill says that officials can begin a meeting immediately after the word "Amen" is uttered. Before each daily session, the Virginia General Assembly has an opening prayer, delivered by clergy from each member's district on a rotating basis.

Those delivering the prayers are advised to stay nonsectarian and avoid political speech. Last month, a lesbian pastor scolded the legislature during her opening prayer.

The Rev. Debra Peevey, pastor of the Journey of the Heart Ministries in Reston, said legislators were using their power "not to lead or to guide but to harm gay and lesbian citizens." Her prayer irritated many lawmakers.

Delegate John A. Cosgrove, Chesapeake Republican, told the Associated Press he was frustrated by Miss Peevey's prayer. "It's interesting -- we're told not to pray in Jesus' name, but this is OK?" he asked.

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