In 2012, the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors in Virginia began each meeting with a prayer to Jesus Christ.
An anonymous woman had sued the city in response — but a judge ruled that the only way for the lawsuit to proceed was if she revealed her identity.
In a country where atheists can get harassed for simply suggesting, “If people want to pray, they should do it privately, not on the taxpayers’ dime,” it’s no surprise the person wanted to keep her identity hidden.
But the lawsuit was too important and Barbara Hudson decided to shed the anonymity so the case could proceed:
The lawsuit against the board is not an attack on anyone’s religion, Hudson said. Supervisor-led sectarian Christian prayers during public meetings amount to government promotion of one religion over others. That creates a danger to everyone’s religious freedom, she said.
Why don’t the supervisors just pray to one God, with an all-encompassing invocation? Hudson asked.
“They could have avoided the whole thing by praying in the name of God,” said Hudson, who is not a Christian. “They want to promote their own version of religion.”
“I just think it’s very sad that the board of supervisors refuses to embrace the idea of God as a source of comfort and guidance, that it has to be sectarian religion,” Hudson said.
Hudson declined to reveal her faith.
“I think religion is a very deeply personal issue,” Hudson said.
(Well, it wouldn’t have been okay in my opinion if they prayed to a generic God, either, but at least the lawsuit continued.)
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled in Greece v. Galloway that sectarian prayers could be recited at government meetings. So that should settle the Pittsylvania case, right?
Not exactly. There’s a big difference between citizens delivering a religious or non-religious invocation — which is what the Supreme Court said was okay — and government officials doing the same thing.
It turns out the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors had already been told by Judge Michael Urbanski that they could not open their meetings with supervisor-led prayer. They requested an injunction on that ruling so they wouldn’t have to follow it.
Put simply, the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors involved itself “in religious matters to a far greater degree” than was the case in Town of Greece… In so doing, the prayer practice in Pittsylvania County had the unconstitutional effect, over time, of officially advancing one faith or belief, violating “the clearest command of the Establishment Clause… that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.”
It also hurt the Commissioners’ cause that, because they were saying their own Christian prayers, no one else ever had a chance to deliver, say, a Humanist invocation. They also told everyone in the audience to stand during their prayers, adding to the coercion factor.
Urbanski said he could possibly modify the injunction, but it wasn’t going to go away anytime soon.
So there’s some irony for you: Greece v Galloway could have allowed these commissioners to have overtly Christian invocations at nearly every meeting… but their own Jesus-y greed put a stop to their public prayers altogether. At least for now.