Town Wasting Money in High Court Appeal, Legal Experts Contend

Great Falls Prayer Case

GREAT FALLS – The town of Great Falls is likely fighting a losing battle in its effort to keep the name of Jesus Christ in its council meeting prayers, several legal experts say.

The Town Council this week voted to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in its ongoing case with Darla Wynne. Wynne, a Great Falls resident and Wiccan high priestess, sued in 2001 to prevent the council from evoking the name of a specific deity, in this case Jesus, in its prayers.

Wynne won the case, a decision that has been upheld in two appeals, prompting the 6-1 council vote to go to the highest court in the land.

“What the council did was vote to waste the town’s money,” said Marshall Dayan, an assistant professor of law at N.C. Central University in Durham, N.C. “What the council is doing is endorsing one religion over another.”

Dayan said he would be surprised if the Supreme Court even agreed to hear the town’s appeal.

He referred to the 1971 Lemon v. Kurtzman case, which ruled government officials can’t act in such a way as to make people feel coerced toward one religion over another, Dayan said.

“The court has said for the last 30 years states cannot favor one religion over another, religion over nonreligion or nonreligion over religion,” Dayan said. “What the court is concerned about is making religious minorities uncomfortable to a point where they can’t participate in the community. All people have a right to feel their religion is valid.”

Eldon Wedlock, a University of South Carolina law professor, agrees that the court is unlikely to side with Great Falls. But he thinks the court may agree to hear it, just to affirm Wynne’s position and make a distinction between “officious piety” – a generic reference to a god – and a sectarian reference to a specific deity.

“The First Amendment bars the establishment of religion. A government can’t take one sect out of religious beliefs and endorse it in some way,” Wedlock said. “The odds are against Great Falls. I think they’re wasting their money.”

Attorney William Hurd of Virginia, who supports Great Falls in this case, disagrees.

Hurd will represent the town for free because the legal decisions handed down in this case by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals affect South Carolina and Virginia equally, he said.

“The Fourth Circuit is dead wrong on this issue because the law basically is that legislators during their time on the floor may say whatever he or she wills without restriction or being held libelous,” Hurd said. “The rules are the same for legislators at the national, state and local levels.”

Joe Conn, a spokesman for the Washington-based Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said Great Falls is trying to promote Christianity over other faiths. “The Supreme Court has never approved of that type favoritism. They’ve (Great Falls has) lost at every round. It’s time to pack up their tents and go home.”

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