Appeals Court Rules Against Sectarian Prayers Before Council Meetings

A federal appeals court ruled unanimously July 22 that the Great Falls, S.C., Town Council must stop opening its meetings exclusively with Christian prayers.

Town officials argued that the prayer practice was permissible, citing a 1983 Supreme Court decision that upheld taxpayer-supported legislative chaplains. But a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that chaplains often offer non-sectarian invocations.

The court held that town officials may continue offering brief invocations that reference God but may not consistently employ Christian prayer.

“[B]rief invocations of the Almighty before engaging in public business have always…been part of our Nation’s history,” wrote Judge Diana Gribbon Motz for the court. “The Town Council of Great Falls remains free to engage in such invocations prior to Council meetings. The opportunity to do so may provide a source of strength to believers and a time of quiet reflection for all. This opportunity does not, however, provide the Town Council, or any other legislative body, license to advance its own religious views in preference to all others, as the Town Council did here. The First Amendment bars such official preference for one religion, and corresponding official discrimination against all others.”

The case was brought by Darla Wynne, a Great Falls resident who often attended council meetings. Wynne, who follows the Wiccan faith, said she felt uncomfortable with the Christian prayers and suggested non-sectarian invocations or that prayers from other traditions sometimes be used instead.

A council member, Barbara Hilton, posted a message on the town’s website urging residents to oppose Wynne’s request for “alternative prayer.” About 100 pro-prayer residents attended the next council meeting, which featured the customary Christian invocation.

Eventually, Wynne stopped standing up during the Christian prayers. In court, she testified that she felt intimated after her protest became public. She said she was called a “witch” and a “Satanist” and was told she was not welcome in the community. Her property has also been vandalized, resulting in $30,000 in damages.

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, praised the court decision.

“This ruling is a victory for religious liberty and diversity,” said Lynn. “The Constitution forbids government to show preference for one religious tradition over others. In America, all faiths are equal in the eyes of the law.”

Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Wynne v. Town of Great Falls case. Lynn said the decision also bodes well for a similar case Americans United is sponsoring in Chesterfield County, Va. In that lawsuit, AU and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia are suing on behalf of a Wiccan who was denied an opportunity to offer an opening invocation before county council meetings, even though other religious leaders were asked to do so.

In early August, officials in Great Falls filed an appeal with the full 4th Circuit.

“We’re certainly disappointed at the outcome of this hearing,” Great Falls Mayor H.C. “Speedy” Starnes said. “We thought we had a good case.”