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BY AMY FLOWERS UMBLE
Fredericksburg City Council can keep Jesus Christ out of its prayers.
The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals yesterday upheld the city's right to start its meetings with nonsectarian prayers.
Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor sat on the three-judge panel hearing the case and wrote the opinion.
"She didn't feel my rights were being violated, but my rights are definitely being violated," said City Councilman Hashmel Turner, who filed the case. "It removed an opportunity for me to pray in the manner of my conviction and my belief."
Turner, a Baptist minister, sued fellow council members after the council adopted the policy in 2005. A resident's complaint about Turner's prayers and a threatened lawsuit prompted the city to change its policy.
Mayor Tom Tomzak said he personally respects Turner's right to pray in the name of Jesus Christ but that pragmatics overruled.
He and other council members simply wanted to protect the city from lawsuits, Tomzak said.
But he'd hoped the appeals court would offer a different opinion.
"I was hoping for more clarity," Tomzak said. "We need clarity on this, religion is such an important part of community life."
Lawyers from the Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute filed suit for Turner and plan to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, said John Whitehead, the institute's director. The city is represented for free by the Hunton & Williams law firm and the People for the United Way Foundation.
"Religion is not the important issue in this case," Whitehead said. "The important issue is if the government has the right to decide who can speak in their meetings."
Turner's attorneys argued prayers held to open City Council meetings are not government speech and so are protected from free speech restrictions.
They also argued that because the council allows prayers which reference "Almighty God" and "Heavenly Father," getting rid of "Jesus Christ" equals discrimination, Whitehead said.
In the opinion, O'Connor wrote, "We hold that Fredericksburg's prayer policy does not violate Turner's Free Speech and Free Exercise rights."
She wrote that the city's policy makes the prayers more inclusive and does not violate Turner's First Amendment rights to free speech.
Whitehead said he didn't know how long it will be before lawyers are ready to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but he said there was "a good chance" the case will be heard, with four conservatives and "a swing vote" on the bench.
"I don't believe the last say-so in the matter should be left up to Justice O'Connor, so I intend on going ahead to the Supreme Court," Turner said.
Amy Flowers Umble:
BACKGROUND OF THE PRAYER CASE