A federal appeals court yesterday upheld the way Chesterfield County conducts the invocation at its Board of Supervisors meetings, dismissing a lawsuit filed by a local Wiccan priestess who said she was excluded from leading the brief prayer.
County officials had told Cynthia Simpson that she could not be on the list of religious leaders allowed to deliver the invocation because it was limited to members of "Judeo-Christian" religions. Backed by civil liberties groups, she filed a federal lawsuit in 2002 alleging that the policy amounted to religious discrimination.
Simpson has said that Wicca -- interchangeable, she said, with witchcraft -- is a peaceful religion that focuses on reverence and respect for the cycles of nature. She said she wanted to offer the prayer to help dispel images of wicked witches on broomsticks.
A federal judge in Richmond backed Simpson, ruling in 2003 that the Chesterfield board was discriminating against minority religions and violating the constitutional mandate for separation of church and state. The judge ordered the county to change the policy to include all faiths or to stop using it altogether.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reversed that decision yesterday, ruling that Chesterfield's policy complies with Supreme Court requirements for legislative prayer because it does not advance or disparage any particular religious faith.
The decision by a three-judge panel, written by Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, says Chesterfield, a suburban county south of Richmond, has allowed a diverse group of religious leaders to conduct the prayer, including a Muslim imam who was involved in giving an invocation at a board meeting shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Civil liberties groups criticized the decision. "This is a deeply disturbing ruling," said Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, one of two groups that brought the lawsuit.
"The Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors, a governmental entity, is endorsing the Judeo-Christian religious tradition while discriminating against all other religions. This kind of government preference for some religions over others is exactly what our Founding Fathers sought to avoid when they gave us [the] First Amendment," Willis said.
But County Attorney Steven L. Micas said in a statement that he is gratified by the decision. "Chesterfield County's invocation policy was developed shortly after the Supreme Court of the United States established the constitutional ground rules for legislative invocations. Our policy exceeds the inclusiveness standards set by the court," he said.
Staff writer Leef Smith contributed to this report.