We’ve been following how some municipalities are dealing with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, which ruled that religious prayer before government meetings did not violate the Establishment Clause to the U.S. Constitution (prior post available here). One case that recently caught our attention is Hudson v. Pittsylvania County, Virginia, (WD VA, Aug. 4, 2014), wherein a federal court distinguished the Town of Greece decision in refusing to dissolve an injunction barring Pittsylvania County, Virginia from opening meetings with prayers associated with any one religion. In distinguishing Town of Greece, the court in Hudson focused on the fact that it was the county’s board members – not invited clergy – who chose the prayers to open board meetings and who led the prayers. In so doing, the county “involved itself ‘in religious matters to a far greater degree’ than was the case in Town of Greece”:
[U]nlike in Town of Greece, where invited clergy and laypersons offered the invocations, the Board members themselves led the prayers in Pittsylvania County. Thus, in contrast to Town of Greece, where the town government had no role in determining the content of the opening invocations at its board meetings, the government of Pittsylvania County itself, embodied in its elected Board members, dictated the content of the prayers opening official Board meetings. . . . [T]hat content was consistently grounded in the tenets of one faith. Further, because the Pittsylvania County Board members themselves served as exclusive prayer providers, persons of other faith traditions had no opportunity to offer invocations. . . .
Not only did the Pittsylvania County Board members determine the content of the opening prayers at Board meetings, the Board members often directed the assembled citizens to participate in the prayers by asking them to stand. For example, on September 20, 2011, the Pittsylvania County supervisor delivering the opening prayer directed: “If you don’t want to hear this prayer, you can leave. Please stand up.” In Town of Greece, the majority opinion noted that such a request from the government makes a difference. 134 S. Ct. at 1826. (“The analysis would be different if town board members directed the public to participate in the prayers.”).
While the court in Hudson indicated it was willing to slightly modify the injunction to bring it in line with Town of Greece, by clarifying that “that opening prayers offered at the start of Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors meetings need not be generic or nonsectarian,” it concluded that it could not do so unless the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, where the case has been appealed, granted at least a limited remand.