Chesterfield Defends Policy And Its Decision To Deny Wiccan A Chance To Lead Invocation
Chesterfield County won’t give up in the legal fight to block a witch from leading the invocation at Board of Supervisors meetings.
County Attorney Steven Micas said he filed notice yesterday with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the county is appealing last month’s district court ruling that declared Chesterfield’s invocation policy unconstitutional.
Last year, the board refused to let Cynthia Simpson, a follower of the Wiccan faith, volunteer to give the customary prayer to open the meetings. The clergy on the volunteer list are all from Judeo- Christian faiths.
“I certainly approve of the appeal,” Supervisor Kelly E. Miller said. “I believe it is well-founded.”
Board Chairman Arthur S. Warren said: “We took a position, and I think we need to remain consistent.”
In a letter to Simpson refusing her request, Micas said the invocations are “traditionally made to a divinity that is consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Based upon our review of Wicca, it is neo-pagan and invokes polytheistic, pre-Christian deities.”
Simpson sued, with help from the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The lawsuit argued that the county’s policy not only excludes Simpson and her religion but also advances some faiths above others, making it unconstitutional.
Micas argued that the county policy is legal because, historically, an “American civil religion” has been established in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Micas argued also that Chesterfield’s policy on invocations does not interfere with Simpson’s right to practice her religion.
The county said that Simpson’s beliefs reflect a “fundamental inconsistency” with the American civil religion and that the inconsistency is “at the heart of why she is not permitted to give an invocation.”
Wicca’s concept of deity is not that of a god separate from humanity, but that human beings are a part of what is divine in the universe.
“A fundamental belief in witchcraft is that everything is sacred and everything is divine, and we are all part of that,” Simpson testified.
In his 30-page opinion, U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis W. Dohnal wrote that Simpson had been excluded “because of a stated governmental preference for a different set of religious beliefs.”
Even though the preference may be shared by a majority in the community, Dohnal said, the policy “cannot survive constitutional scrutiny.”
Dohnal delayed imposition of his order that the county drop the policy in case Chesterfield leaders decided to appeal his decision.
Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia ACLU, said his organization asked the district court yesterday to order the county to pay $60,000 for the ACLU’s legal expenses in the case. In addition to Rebecca K. Glenberg, legal director of the Virginia ACLU, two other lawyers worked on the case.
Micas said his office has handled the county’s defense of the lawsuit and spent no extra money.
Willis said Dohnal made a “thorough and accurate finding” and that he expects the appeals court to affirm it.
“I actually welcome the appeal and the opportunity for this decision to be affirmed at a higher level,” Simpson said yesterday. “I realize there is risk. But I believe we have a wonderful judicial system.”
Dec. 13, 2003