Fredericksburg City Council member Hashmel C. Turner Jr. says he doesn't plan to alter the prayer -- "based on Christ my Lord" -- he uses when it's his turn to open the meeting, despite a recent federal court ruling against invoking only Jesus in official prayer.
But Turner, an associate Baptist minister, may sit out the pre-meeting prayer again tonight, as he did for a while last year after a resident complained.
"We are not looking for a fight. We are not looking for a lawsuit," said city attorney Jim Pates, who is studying last week's ruling by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in a South Carolina case.
The Supreme Court has upheld the tradition of prayer at legislative meetings but has remained silent about what may be said. The new appellate ruling is the highest yet on the issue of content, and officials and advocates say they are still interpreting it.
The Richmond-based court ruled that the town of Great Falls, S.C., violated the Constitution by allowing officials to invoke the name of Jesus Christ. The suit was filed by Darla Kaye Wynne, a Wiccan who asked that "a generic deity such as 'God' " be invoked, "so that all of my community could be welcomed there," the three-judge panel noted in its decision Friday.
The controversy arose in Fredericksburg last year when Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU in Virginia, complained on behalf of a city resident. He said yesterday that the 4th Circuit decision means that "Rev. Turner must deliver nonsectarian prayers in which he doesn't make reference to a specific religion."
But Willis said it might be permissible for Turner to invoke the name of Christ or other religious figures if many viewpoints are also expressed. "If they allow citizens from other religions to give prayers, that might change the legal situation," he said.
The Rutherford Institute, a religious-freedom advocacy group that is based in Charlottesville and has been advising Turner, said yesterday that the decision doesn't resolve much because it refers specifically to the Great Falls meetings, in which the opening prayer always end with "In Christ's name we pray."
"It said prayers that end in a specific deity -- that, they felt, was proselytizing," Rutherford President John W. Whitehead said. "What they're saying is you can pray, just don't end it in a specific deity." He said Turner seems to have the option of sticking to his prayer if the council also has "a revolving door," inviting people of different religions -- or no religion at all -- to participate.
That solution did not make Turner comfortable. "I wouldn't identify with it, that's for sure," he said.
So what he will do at tonight's meeting wasn't clear.
At issue in the South Carolina case was the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which bars government from making law "respecting an establishment of religion."
Although the Supreme Court has made it clear that a legislative body may "invoke divine guidance," the appellate panel wrote, "it may not 'exploit' this prayer opportunity to 'affiliate' the government with one specific faith or belief."
Fredericksburg has no written policy on the subject, simply a tradition of having council members rotate in giving the prayer. Turner suggested that he was targeted because he is a clergyman, although he said he couldn't remember other council members invoking Jesus Christ.
He said he agreed to skip his place in the rotation last year because he was afraid that the entire tradition would be eliminated. And these days, he said, Americans need a prayer.
"In the state our nation is in, and the world, my belief is that our nation and service personnel around the world need prayer," he said. "We should be asking for that protection and guidance."