Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia today filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Chesterfield County, Va., Board of Supervisors for maintaining a discriminatory policy on prayer before its meetings.
The plaintiff in the case is Cynthia Simpson, a Wiccan who asserts that the Board's refusal to add her to a list of volunteer clergy who give the invocations constitutes illegal religious discrimination and an unconstitutional government promotion of religion.
The Board routinely opens its meetings with prayers, usually offered by clergy from Christian denominations. (Since 2000, Christian clergy have led the prayers at every Board meeting with one exception when two Christian clergy and one Jewish rabbi officiated.) Earlier this year, Simpson contacted the Board and asked that her name be added to the list of volunteers.
In response, County Attorney Steven L. Micas sent Simpson a letter stating, "Chesterfield's non-sectarian invocations are traditionally made to a divinity that is consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Based upon our review of Wicca, it is neo-pagan and invokes polytheistic, pre-Christian deities. Accordingly, we cannot honor your request to be included on the list of religious leaders that are invited to provide invocations at the meetings of the Board of Supervisors."
Board members also ridiculed and criticized Simpson's religious beliefs. Supervisor Renny B. Humphrey told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "I hope she's a good witch, like Glinda," a reference to a character from "The Wizard of Oz." Board Chair Kelly E. Miller said, "It is a mockery. It is not any religion I would subscribe to. There are certain places we ought not go, and this is one of them."
"Government officials do not have the right to discriminate when it comes to religion," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "The county supervisors shouldn't be sponsoring prayers at all, but when they do, they certainly can't play favorites."
"More than anything else, this situation demonstrates why state and religion should always remain separate," said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. "As the framers of the Constitution understood from their own experiences, when the state uses its vast power to sponsor a religious activity, it will always make losers of some faiths and winners of others. And that jeopardizes religious freedom."
The lawsuit, Simpson v. Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors, asks that Simpson be added to the list of clergy volunteers or that the Board discontinue invocations altogether. The complaint was filed today in Richmond in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
Lawyers representing Ms. Simpson are: Rebecca K. Glenberg, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia; ACLU cooperating attorney Victor M. Glasberg of Glasberg & Associates in Alexandria; and, Ayesha Khan, legal director for American United for Separation of Church and State.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.