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Prayer decision expected
Federal judge who heard arguments in the Fredericksburg case said a ruling will be soon.

 Hashmel Turner
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Date published: 8/4/2006

RICHMOND--Federal District Court Judge James R. Spencer told attorneys for Fredericksburg City Councilman Hashmel Turner they had "a steep hill to climb" during arguments yesterday in Turner's lawsuit challenging the city's policy on prayers before council meetings.

Spencer said he would issue a judgment soon, before a Sept. 14 trial date set previously.

Turner, whose attorneys are being provided by the Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute, filed suit against his fellow City Council members in January.

His suit claims that when the council adopted a policy in November calling for only nonsectarian prayers to be given to open council meetings, it abridged his rights as an individual to pray as he sees fit.

Turner, who is a Baptist minister, had withdrawn from the rotation for giving the opening prayers after the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia threatened to sue the city if he continued to invoke Jesus Christ in his prayers.

Johan Conrod, an affiliate attorney for the Rutherford Institute who works for the Norfolk firm Kaufman & Canoles, argued on Turner's behalf yesterday.

He tried to make the case to Spencer that when Turner prays as one councilman in a rotation before meetings, he's not giving government speech, and the First Amendment gives him the right to pray as he wishes.

He argued that they should be considered individual expression, and that the First Amendment's free speech protections should keep council members from telling Turner how to pray.

But Spencer didn't seem to follow Conrod's logic.

"If you can convince me that this legislative prayer is not government speech, I think you would have climbed a very high mountain," Spencer said to Conrod. "All the case law is against you."

He also said that if the free speech argument means every member of the council prayer rotation can pray as he wishes, then they could all invoke Christ in their prayers. A similar situation in a South Carolina town generated the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals' 2004 ruling that the town council could not indicate a preference for any religion in its meeting-opening prayers.

Conrod had said Fredericksburg's situation was different because one council member wanted to pray in Jesus' name, whereas the entire council had been doing so in the South Carolina case. That prompted another question from Spencer.

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