Council in S.C. town loses appeal on Christian prayer

RICHMOND, VA.–A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld a judge’s ruling that prohibits the Great Falls, S.C., Town Council from opening its meetings with a prayer that mentions Jesus Christ.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that such prayers amount to an unconstitutional government advancement of one religion: Christianity.

Darla Kaye Wynne, a Wiccan high priestess, sued the town after its leaders refused to open meetings only with nonsectarian prayers or to allow members of different faiths to lead the prayers. Wynne said she was ostracized for refusing to stand and bow her head during the Christian prayers.

U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan of Rock Hill, S.C., ruled in August that the prayers violated the First Amendment. The appeals court agreed, citing U.S. Supreme Court rulings that allow only generic prayers by government bodies.

“Public officials’ brief invocations of the Almighty before engaging in public business have always … been part of our nation’s history,” Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote. “The Town Council of Great Falls remains free to engage in such invocations prior to council meetings. The opportunity to do so may provide a source of strength to believers, and a time of quiet reflection for all.”

She continued, “This opportunity does not, however, provide the Town Council, or any other legislative body, license to advance its own religious views in preference to all others, as the Town Council did here.”

Judge Robert King and Judge David Hansen, a member of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals designated to hear the case, joined in the ruling.

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