The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed a lawsuit against the city of Parkersburg, West Virginia for reciting a Christian prayer at the beginning of all city council meetings. The lawsuit notes that council members say the Lord’s Prayer to open each session and audience members are encouraged to stand.
The plaintiffs include Parkersburg resident and atheist Daryl Cobranchi who attended council meetings but stopped because “the Council treat[ed] him like a second-class citizen” as a result of his dissent over the prayers. Another plaintiff is resident Eric Engle, a self-described “agnostic atheist” who felt “negatively singled out” for similar reasons.
This prayer practice has been going on for years, according to the complaint. The published minutes for the meetings say that the prayer dates back at least to the beginning of 2016, though it probably stretches back longer than that.
And it wasn’t like government officials just said the prayer and moved on.
At one meeting last year, Councilman Eric Barber “stared” at the men who remained in their seats instead of standing for God, turned on the microphone after the prayer, and shouted “Amen” into it — presumably to let those dissenters know which religion mattered more.
Keep in mind that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers West Virginia, has already ruled against these kinds of prayers just last month in a case called Lund v. Rowan County.
It’s not that FFRF hasn’t raised concerns with the council before. In 2015, they sent a letter urging the council to put a stop to the practice. Either other beliefs had to be represented in the rotation, or the Christian prayer had to go. The city never responded. So this lawsuit is something of a last resort.
The complaint on behalf of the plaintiffs states, “The City Council’s recitation of the Lord’s Prayer has the primary effect of both advancing religion and expressing Defendant’s preference for Christianity above all other religions and nonreligion.”
FFRF also is seeking a preliminary injunction, which would prohibit the City Council from continuing to open its meetings with Christian prayers led by council members. The plaintiffs’ brief says, “Given the similarities between this case and Lund, Parkersburg’s Christian invocation practice cannot stand. Plaintiffs’ right to relief under Lund is so clear that Defendant’s practice must be enjoined on a preliminary basis.”
This should be a clear-cut, uncontroversial case. The city council is wrong. It’s that simple. This isn’t about religious persecution. This is about religious neutrality, something these council members don’t give a damn about. It’ll take a court order to get the Christians to do the right thing.