Cover Story

The Trials and Tribulations of Hashmel Turner

An unassuming small-town preacher and his unconventional Christian lawyer are trying to win the right to pray to Jesus at city council meetings

By Michelle Boorstein
Sunday, December 9, 2007; Page W10

LORD JESUS, THIS IS ALL FOR YOU, THE REV. HASHMEL TURNER THOUGHT as he walked through the swinging glass doors into Fredericksburg's City Hall. Waiting there was a small gaggle of Washington television reporters who rushed over to Turner the moment he walked in. Turner froze.

Councilman Turner, demanded one with a microphone, are you going to pray tonight? What kind of prayer will you give?

The Rev. Hashmel Turner has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Fredricksburg, Va.
The Rev. Hashmel Turner has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Fredricksburg, Va. (Jay L. Clendenin - Jay L. Clendenin/for Twp Mag)

Typically, the reserved Baptist minister speaks slowly, in a rich, low tone. This time, his words came faster. "I'm standing firm in my faith," he told them. There would be no compromise. Jesus was being systematically erased from America's public places, and what was Turner worth if he didn't fight it, no matter the cost?

When he entered the City Council chambers, Turner saw about 15 people attending the meeting for routine issues: a woman opposing a planned downtown hotel, a man seeking a special-use permit for a remodeled deck. They'd all read the newspaper articles about the controversy brewing over Turner's invocation, and their whispered guesses about what he'd do that night flew around the room.

For two years, Turner had been struggling with how to pray before council meetings. He wanted to be true to his faith but wasn't sure what to do after a woman lodged a complaint about his references to Jesus. He'd taken himself out of the council's prayer rotation, then reinserted himself, haunted by the thought that he was abandoning Jesus to avoid a confrontation.

Moments before the July 27, 2004, City Council meeting began, Turner had talked privately in the hallway with Mayor Thomas Tomzak. Tomzak, who had been elected only two months earlier, didn't relish being the one to deliver bad news. The city attorney, the mayor told Turner, was recommending that Turner not deliver the opening invocation, unless he was willing to keep it general. Nonsectarian. No references to Jesus Christ, Tomzak said. The American Civil Liberties Union was threatening to sue the city, and federal case law was apparently unclear. Educated in Catholic schools himself, Tomzak made it plain that he felt queasy telling a minister how to pray.

"I understand," Turner, now 58, remembers telling the mayor. Turner was too hurt to argue. There was no way he was changing his prayer -- that much he knew. He'd rather stay silent. But part of him still didn't believe Jesus had really been banished from the council chambers of the town where he'd grown up. Where church members had helped feed him when he was a dirt-poor youth. Where he was saved at a Billy Graham crusade in the spring of 1968 at a theater on Caroline Street. Where he had just been ordained a preacher for the First Baptist Church of Love.

When the council members took their seats on the horseshoe-shaped dais, the mayor asked for 10 seconds of silence for U.S. soldiers who "at this very moment are in harm's way." Then would come the prayer. The room grew still, and Turner waited, continuing to hope that Tomzak would call on him.

"Mrs. Deborah Girvan will now lead us in prayer," Tomzak announced as the 10 seconds expired.

Councilwoman Girvan, in a mint blazer, then launched into a general, if slightly odd invocation, something about work and "bearing the burden and heat of the day." Jesus Christ went unmentioned. While Girvan spoke, Turner kept his eyes shut, stretched his arms in front of him and silently mouthed his own prayer, continuing even after Girvan was done with hers.

He would be quiet on this night, but not forever. He'd begun to believe that he wasn't the only Christian under assault by the secular world: Evangelizing in the military was being attacked; Christmas trees were being removed from airports; students were being prevented from sharing their love of Jesus in their classes. But many Christians were fighting back. These days, Turner concluded, the battleground for America's soul was being waged in the nation's courtrooms as well as in its churches.

Turner had transformed himself from a hard-pressed orphan to clergyman and respected local official, all with God's guiding hand. Now, it seemed, God had selected a new role for him.

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