Some local governments leaders defying court ruling

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CHARLESTON, S.C. – Some local government leaders in South Carolina are continuing to pray to a specific god at meetings, despite a federal appeals court ruling that such religion-specific prayers are unconstitutional.

Charleston County Councilman Tim Scott described the ruling as part of a continuing attack on Christianity, and he said he hopes his council will fight back by including Jesus in its prayers.

“We’ve had Christ-specific prayers even since the ruling,” Scott said. “We are at war in defining what Americans believe on a values basis.”

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that the Great Falls Town Council no longer could invoke the name of Jesus at government meetings. The precedent-setting ruling ends a centuries-old tradition in some states and applies to government meetings in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland.

“Buddha didn’t die for me. Allah didn’t die for me. My religion says Jesus did,” said Caldwell Pinckney, a Berkeley County councilman. “Nobody can dictate that to me. They cannot dictate the relationship between me and God.”

In Mount Pleasant, Town Councilman Kruger Smith said he uses a generic prayer before each meeting and stopped invoking the name of Jesus 12 years ago. “I’m praying to one God, asking for help from the one God believed to exist by all the major religions in the world,” he said. “I see nothing wrong with offering a prayer.”

The case began in 2001 when Darla Kayne Wynne, who practices the Earth-centered Wicca religion, sued the Great Falls Town Council for invoking Jesus Christ during meetings. Wynne said council members used the prayers to draw attention to her religious beliefs and ostracize her.

The three-judge panel of the Appeals Court agreed and issued its ruling.

The Great Falls Town Council is planning to appeal the decision to the full Court of Appeals. If it loses there, the town would continue its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. “We’ll exhaust all legal remedies to address this,” town attorney Brian Gibbons said.

Alex Kasman, a board member of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, thinks the word God should be eliminated from all government meetings.

“What’s really called for is a complete separation between religion and government,” he said. “This is just a small step in the right direction.”

An attorney for the city of Charleston said City Council would continue to allow prayers that refer to specific religions and that this would be within the law as long as the council doesn’t show preference to one group.

“A public body cannot show preference,” said Charleston City Attorney Adelaide Andrews. “City Council has been very thoughtful about this. The mayor allows a different council member to give a prayer at every meeting.”

Greenville City Councilwoman Chandra Dillard closes her prayers before meetings with the words “in your name we pray.” She doesn’t say who “your” refers to – although in her mind, it’s Jesus.

“I am astute enough to know and recognize that people worship in different ways, and I am sensitive to the diversity that we have,” she said.

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Associated Press, USA
Aug. 8, 2004

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