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Court rejects prayerappeal
Supreme Court turns down appeal in Turner prayer case; city policy stands


Date published: 1/13/2009

BY EMILY BATTLE

The U.S. Supreme Court won't hear an appeal of the Fredericksburg City Council's policy of prohibiting specific religious references in prayers.

Three years and one day after City Councilman Hashmel Turner filed suit against his fellow council members, maintaining that the policy violated his First Amendment rights, the Supreme Court yesterday turned down Turner's final appeal.

Turner said he was disappointed by the news.

"I still believe in my heart and in my soul that I am right, that it is not unconstitutional for Christians to pray in the public setting," he said.

The court's decision not to hear the case means that a Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling upholding the city's policy will stand.

That opinion was written by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who sat on the three-judge panel that heard Turner's appeal in Richmond last summer.

That ruling, and the lower court rulings and courtroom discussions that preceded it, maintained that the prayers are government speech, and that the nonsectarian policy is actually required to keep the Fredericksburg council from violating the constitution's clause prohibiting government from establishing a religion, or showing preference of one religion over another.

The city was represented free in the case by the Hunton & Williams law firm and the People for the American Way Foundation. Turner was represented by the Charlottesville-based Ruth-erford Institute.

His lawyers argued that the prayers, given by individual councilmen, should not be considered government speech, and therefore should be protected by the First Amendment.

The prayer issue arose in Fredericksburg in 2003, when a resident complained to the American Civil Liberties Union that Turner was invoking Jesus Christ in his opening prayers.

The ACLU threatened to sue the city if that continued, so the council adopted a nondenominational prayer policy, and Turner was taken out of the prayer rotation.

"From the onset, I was very set back and concerned as to why there was so much fear when it was just three words--'in Jesus' name,'" Turner said yesterday. "That was my prayer language and I just refused to compromise or change it."

Turner said he still feels that his free-expression rights are violated by the policy, but he said it won't affect his service on the City Council.

"This did not hinder my relationship with my fellow council members," Turner said. "I don't see where this ruling will change that in any way."

Emily Battle: 540/374-5413
Email: ebattle@freelancestar.com