(Legislative Prayers - Local)

This case was brought by Cynthia Simpson, a witch, against the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors in Virginia. It has been a long tradition that the Board of Supervisors' meetings open with an invocation by a local clergyman. The County sends out invitations to a list of local religious bodies, and religious leaders who accept the invitation to give the invocation are placed on a list on a first come, first served basis. Religious leaders who have given invocations include Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, Jewish rabbies, Muslim imams, Mormon bishops, and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Simpson contacted the County and asked to be placed on the list. When asked what religion she was a leader in, she stated that she was a witch. Her request was denied. When she then urged the county to eliminate the invocations altogether, the county declined, and Simpson filed suit. A federal judge found in Simpson's favor, and the county appealed to the Fourth District Court of Appeals, the source of this decision. The COA found for Chesterfield County, remanded the case back to the judge with instructions to dismiss the case. Some noteworthy excerpts from the COA decision:

As Marsh teaches, legislative invocations perform the venerable function of seeking divine guidance for the legislature. As such, these invocations constitute "a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country," being as we are "‘a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.’"

Marsh also considered, and found constitutionally acceptable, the fact that the prayers in question fit broadly within "the Judeo-Christian tradition." Marsh, 463 U.S. at 793. The Supreme Court pointedly declined to discount the prospect that such prayer can aid public bodies in the performance of their duties. Id. at 792. Instead, it recognized the capacity of legislative invocations to bring the unifying aspects of our heritage to the difficult task of public deliberation. See, e.g., id. at 786, 791. Simpson’s position would essentially repeal this understanding.

When we gather as Americans, we do not abandon all expressions of religious faith.

Now, I would not agree with everything in the COA's written opinion. For instance, relying on previous (and I believe erroneous) case law, the opinion states that invocations given only in Jesus' name, for instance, would be unconstitutional. Public invocations must be pluralistic/nonsectarian in nature. The United States Constitution places limits only on the federal government. The first amendment prohibits the United States Congress from passing a law which has the effect of establishing a religion. Later court decisions used the nation's first civil rights legislation (the fourteenth amendment) to apply a mistaken interpretation of the first amendment to all government entitites - federal, state, and local. This was not the intention of the constitution's framers. While this decision continues to parrot the contitutionally ignorant decisions of the past, it is a victory in that the citizens of Chesterfield County, Virginia will not have to be subject to the prayers of a witch unless they choose to invite her.