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The Franklin News-Post
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Rocky Mount, Virginia 24151
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Supreme Court prayer ruling allows use of Jesus’ name
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Bill Stanley

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

By K.A. WAGONER - Staff Writer

Monday's Supreme Court decision on prayer before government meetings could impact the content of prayers offered by members of the Franklin County Board of Supervisors.

In April 2012, Dave Gresham of Hardy requested that the board stop saying a Christian prayer before opening meetings, saying that the use of Jesus' name is insulting to other religions.

"You are going to wind up getting sued," Dave Gresham told the board. "I just want you to return to and honor the Constitution."

Supervisors conceded somewhat, continuing the traditional opening prayer at each meeting with references to God but not Jesus.

But the Supreme Court ruled Monday that Christian prayers before legislative meetings do not violate the Constitution. And that prayers do not have to be stripped of specific religious references.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "... a challenge based solely on the content of a prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation."

Franklin County supervisors acquiesced to some degree to avoid a lawsuit like the one filed against the Pittsylvania Board of Supervisors in September 2011 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia on behalf of Barbara Hudson, a Pittsylvania County resident who wanted the board to stop using the name of Jesus in its opening prayers.

In March 2013, a federal judge barred the Pittsylvania Board of Supervisors from saying Christian prayers before its meetings.

The board, represented by Franklin County attorney Bill Stanley, appealed the judge's decision and requested a stay in the case until the Supreme Court made its decision in a similar case involving Greece, N.Y., the one that was decided Monday.

Stanley said the Supreme Court's decision is good news for the Pittsylvania Board of Supervisors.

"This is what we have been waiting for," he said.

But not all Christians are particularly happy with the "fine print" in Monday's ruling.

In his blog, Pastor Chuck Warnock of Chatham Baptist Church says, "Now that the community of Greece, New York, has been vindicated, many will believe a celebration is in order. But before we join the party, shouldn't Baptists everywhere be concerned with the ruling's fine print?"

"Historically, Baptists have struggled to keep government out of religious practice. However, with the Supreme Court's ruling today, the majority of justices not only redefined prayer as part of the ceremony of civic life, they also set limits on its place in the public square," Warnock wrote.

The pastor expresses his concern with prayer being labeled as "ceremonial," akin to the Pledge of Allegiance, and Justice Kennedy's suggested purpose of prayer to "acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers."

Kennedy also wrote, "In rejecting the suggestion that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian, the Court does not imply that no constraints remain on its content.... Prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing, serves that legitimate function."

"If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort. That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court," Kennedy added.

Warnock suggests that pastors should ask themselves if they find it "acceptable to craft our public prayers by criteria defined by the Supreme Court."

 
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