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Prayer lawsuit hits city
The Rev. Hashmel Turner files suit against his fellow City Council members over prayer policy.

Date published: 1/12/2006

By EMILY BATTLE

Fredericksburg City Councilman Hashmel Turner has filed suit against his fellow council members, saying that the city's new prayer policy violates his constitutional rights.

Turner is being represented by the Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit group that advocates for free expression issues.

He said he does not see the suit as an action against the rest of council, but rather an attempt to ask the courts to determine whether he has a constitutional right to pray in the name of Jesus Christ at government meetings.

"It is an action taken against the adopted policy and not against the council," he said.

The lawsuit, filed yesterday in the U.S. District Court in Richmond, asks the court to rule that the city's prayer policy is unconstitutional, and to order that Turner be allowed back into the council's prayer rotation.

Turner, who is a pastor at First Baptist Church of Love in Fredericksburg, has traditionally invoked the name of Jesus Christ when giving opening prayers at council meetings.

He hasn't been a part of the council's prayer rotation for more than a year, as the council has tried to avoid a lawsuit from another free-speech group--the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU of Virginia wrote council members in July 2004, saying it would file suit if Turner or any other council member invoked a Christian or other specific religious deity in a prayer opening a council meeting.

That letter was based on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals' 2004 ruling in a South Carolina case that opening government meetings with sectarian prayer is unconstitutional.

The council voted 5-1 in November to adopt a policy of offering nondenominational prayers devoid of any Christian or other specific religious references. Turner abstained from that vote, and Councilman Matt Kelly voted against the policy.

At that same meeting, Turner asked to be added back into the prayer rotation, and to lead the prayer before the Nov. 22 council meeting.

Turner said he can't conceive of giving a prayer that does not invoke Christ.

"It goes against what I believe," he said. "I have no intention of compromising that, but I am not asking anyone else to accept it."

At the Nov. 22 meeting, Mayor Tom Tomzak asked Councilwoman Debby Girvan to give the prayer instead.


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August 2003--Councilman Hashmel Turner voluntarily drops out of council's prayer rotation after the ACLU objected to his prayers invoking Jesus Christ.

October 2003--Turner resumes prayer and opens a council meeting by invoking Christ.

July 2004--The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals issues a decision that says sectarian prayer at government meetings is unconstitutional, and the ACLU tells the city it will sue the city and Turner if he invokes Christ at council meetings.

Winter 2005--Virginia General Assembly passes legislation allowing government bodies to offer sectarian prayer in a period of meditation before a meeting officially begins; the council asks the city attorney for guidance.

November 2005--The council adopts a policy of offering nondenominational prayer before meetings. Despite his request, Turner is not added back into the prayer rotation.

January 2006--Turner, represented by the Rutherford Institute, files a federal lawsuit asking that the policy be declared a violation of his rights.