A federal judge ruled yesterday that the city of Parkersburg, West Virginia has to stop saying the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of all city council meetings, giving victory to the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its two non-religious plaintiffs.
The lawsuit was first filed in 2018 and claimed that council members said the prayer to open each session and that audience members were encouraged to stand. The plaintiffs included local 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, and local “agnostic atheist” Eric Engle, who felt “negatively singled out” for similar reasons.
The complaint said the prayer had been going on for years, dating back to at least 2016. It wasn’t passive either. At one meeting in 2017, 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.
But the real slam dunk in the lawsuit was the fact that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers West Virginia, had already ruled against these kinds of prayers in a separate case called Lund v. Rowan County. If precedent mattered, this wasn’t a complicated case. It was an open and shut constitutional violation.
The lawsuit was only filed after FFRF attempted to put a stop to the practice in 2015. They said that the council had two choices: Get rid of the prayer altogether or open the door to non-Christian beliefs being represented at meetings. The city never responded to that letter. The lawsuit, then, was something of a last resort.
And now a judge has sided with the atheists. In a 30-page ruling issued yesterday, U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver, Jr. said the prayers in question were unconstitutional because they were all given by members of the city council, “unceasingly and exclusively” promoted Christianity, invited constituents to join officials in prayer, and pressured citizens to join in because of the nature of the meetings. For all those reasons, the practice needs to end.
… the City Council wrapped itself in a single faith. That is exemplified by the unduly heightened risk of coercion by the state by virtue of the governmental identity of the prayer-givers acting in unison, the invariable nature of the sectarian prayer that is associated with and endorses Christianity, and the implicit and sometimes express invitation to the public in attendance to join in, all in the relative intimacy of a local government setting. It is the combination of these factors—the totality of the circumstances—that renders the prayer practice of the City Council impermissible.
Accordingly, the court concludes that the City Council of Parkersburg’s legislative prayer practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
It’s a completely thorough explanation of why the prayer needs to end, though it also sets an extremely high bar for similar cases. (If city council members delivered the Lord’s Prayer, but didn’t ask citizens to participate, would it also be declared illegal?)
Still, it’s the right result. This was never about religious persecution. This was always about maintaining religious neutrality, something these council members didn’t give a damn about.
FFRF celebrated the ruling:
“The government shouldn’t be in the business of composing or adopting official prayers, as the court has affirmed. Those prayers turned non-believers into outsiders, now at 29 percent of the population, and non-Christians in general, about 35 percent overall, which is a lot of citizens to exclude,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We’re delighted that reason has prevailed, and that our secular Constitution ‘will be done.’”
The question now is whether the city council will appeal. Given how brazen their attempts to inject Christianity into meetings have been, they probably wouldn’t get very far. But that doesn’t mean they won’t try.