Wiccan, county make their cases

Cynthia Simpson won’t budge.

Neither will Chesterfield County.

Now, it’s up to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to decide whether Simpson, a witch of the Wiccan faith, can be excluded from the list of clergy invited to give the opening prayer at Chesterfield Board of Supervisors meetings.

“I’m no attorney, but it’s clear to me that my local government can’t discriminate against any religion,” Simpson said yesterday, following a hearing at the University of Richmond School of Law that lasted more than an hour.

“I am always hopeful,” she said. “I believe that my position in this case is the accurate one.”

Simpson, who calls herself a witch and a Wiccan priestess, plans to become a minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church. To that end she will pursue a master’s degree in theology at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania starting this fall.

Simpson said Unitarian Universalist beliefs are compatible with the Wiccan faith, which is based on a unity with the earth and the idea that God is not separate from human beings — that they and everything are part of the deity.

Chesterfield County prompted yesterday’s hearing by appealing the case to the 4th Circuit after losing to Simpson in U.S. District Court.

Magistrate Judge Dennis W. Dohnal decided the case in Simpson’s favor in November 2003. His opinion said the county policy that invocations be in the Judeo-Christian tradition excluded Simpson “because of a stated government preference for a different set of religious beliefs.”

That’s impermissible under the Constitution, Dohnal said.

County Attorney Steven Micas, arguing the case before the three-judge panel, said Chesterfield should not be treated any differently from other legislative bodies — including Congress that have invocations.

He said the prayer is for the “legislators themselves” and not for those in the audience, and so does not promote any religion for the people. Micas said the county has had its Judeo-Christian-only policy in place for at least 20 years.

Rebecca Glenberg, the ACLU lawyer representing Simpson, said the county should not be in the business of deciding who is and who is not a “religious leader.”

“Treating different religions differently is an establishment of religion,” Glenberg told the judges.

Following the hearing, Glenberg took questions from reporters, while Micas said he would feel more comfortable “letting the judges decide.”

“Obviously it is impossible to predict what a panel of judges will do, but I am very optimistic,” Glenberg said. She said the judges asked many tough questions that showed a clear grasp of the legal issues in the case.

One of those issues appears to be whether the invocations are said for the supervisors and not the citizens in the audience. At official meetings of an elected body, Glenberg said, “the perception of the public is that the prayer is for everyone.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Richmond Times-Dispatch, USA
Feb. 4, 2005
Tom Campbell and Meredith Bonny

Religion News Blog posted this on Friday February 4, 2005.
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