TRI In The News
Court Challenged to Allow Christians Right to Pray, Too
By Bob Unruh
Original article available here.
A court hearing is coming in which the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will be asked to restore to Christians the rights that political correctness in the United States today grants other religions, including the right to pray to their God.
The case involves Rev. Hashmel Turner and the city of Fredericksburg, Va., and is being handled by the constitutional experts at The Rutherford Institute.
Turner, a member of the city council in Fredericksburg, was part of a rotation of council members who would take turns bringing a prayer at the council meetings, and he ended his prayers "in Jesus name."
That offended a listener, who promptly brought several heavyweight activist groups into the picture with their threat of a lawsuit if the elected Christian council member wasn't censored, so the city adopted a policy requiring "nondenominational" prayers, effectively eliminating any reference to "Jesus."
John Whitehead, the founder and chief of The Rutherford Institute, told WND it's an issue of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, burdened with the politically correct atmosphere in the United States that appears to endorse or at least allow any sort of religious acknowledgement, such as the University of Michigan building footbaths for Muslims, but allows no similar acknowledgement of Christianity.
He said the Fredericksburg case is one of the first to be battled through the courts, and is being watched closely by city councils and state legislatures across the country.
WND has reported several times on various religious leaders, including one high-profile Hindu from Arizona, who have been asked to say prayers at various state legislatures and in the U.S. Senate. Meanwhile, leaders in the Senate specifically rejected permission for a Christian leader, former Navy Chaplain Gordon Klingenschmitt, permission to do the same.
The arguments in the Turner case will be March 19, and will focus on the circumstances that led the city to tell Turner, "You can't refer to your God," said Whitehead.
"The city passed this regulation telling people how to pray!" he said. The penalty for violating would be a citation for "disorderly conduct."
A lower court dismissed the First Amendment complaint, despite arguments that the restriction "violates Turner's constitutional rights to free speech, to freely exercise his religious beliefs and to equal protection of the law."
"The essential question in this case is whether the government can provide an opportunity to pray to a select group of individuals, all the while dictating the content of the prayers and excluding anyone who refuses to go along with their dictates," Whitehead said.
"The answer, as the Supreme Court has ruled in the past, is in the negative - the government simply cannot prescribe or proscribe the content of any 'official' prayer without violating the Establishment Clause, and it cannot discriminate against any person based on his or her religious viewpoint without violating that person's rights to free speech and free religious expression," he said.
Turner joined the council in 2002, but since the 1950s the council called on members on a rotating basis to open in prayer. He prayed both for himself individually that he might have wisdom and guidance in carrying out his duties and likewise for the council, officials said, ending "in Jesus name."
The result was a threat of a lawsuit from the ACLU, which later was joined by other similarly situated advocacy organizations.
The council buckled, adopting a policy of "nondenominational" prayers only. The district court opined that the councilman's prayers were "government speech," an argument Whitehead challenged.
"Government cannot itself pray, thus prayer cannot be government speech," the appeal noted. Moreover, the standing definition of "government speech" generally has applied when the government controls the content, not during an individual council member's prayer.
Whitehead, in an opinion column on the case, which already has been in the courts for two years, said the people of Fredericksburg "should be grateful for a representative who knows how to stand his ground and fight for the things that matter."
"There are some things in life that cannot be compromised," he continued. "For Hashmel Turner, his faith, his integrity and his civil liberties are three things worth fighting for."
He noted Turner was the oldest of 10 children and served in the Army in Southeast Asia from 1969-1972, then returned to help each of his nine younger siblings get a start in life.
He and his wife Alice have been married more than three decades. He's served as an interim pastor and works as a motor vehicle operator and safety training instructor.
"In the state where Thomas Jefferson penned the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom to protect the likes of three Baptist preachers jailed for uttering unlicensed prayers, it may seem strange that ending a prayer with three small words could ignite a legal brushfire," Whitehead said. "Yet it has.
"Other members of the city council are able to pray in the manner they choose and describe God in their own words. Apart from three small words, the other council members' prayers are not much different from Turner's," he said.
Whitehead told WND the case is just a symptom of the total secularization of America intended by groups like the ACLU and one of the newer organizations to join in trying to censor Turner, People for the American Way.
He cited another case his firm has handled: A student in Las Vegas who wanted to "mention" Jesus during her valedictory speech at graduation. School officials told her no, and when she did, turned off her microphone during her speech.
"There's a political correctness," he said. "Here's what I'm seeing nationwide. People don't want to offend anybody, so if one person is disturbed by the name 'Jesus" they want to eliminate it."
Yet at the same time the public is making accommodation for Muslim prayer rooms, footbaths and other special provisions for members of that faith.
"There seems to be very much of a tolerance for other religions, but not for Christianity," he said.
WND also has reported a number of times on the battles fought by a former Navy chaplain, Gordon James Klingenschmitt, who was ejected from the service because he chose to pray "in Jesus name."
But not all cases are being lost. Klingenschmitt wrote for WND about the case when the city council in Tulsa, Okla., voted 7-2 to restore religious liberty by lifting a ban that had prohibited praying "in Jesus name" before council meetings.
He also wrote about victories in Indiana, where the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a decision that banned praying to Jesus on the floor of the state House, and in Ohio, where state officials reversed their temporary ban on prayers to Jesus.
In Klingenschmitt's own case, he was convicted by the Navy of failing to follow a lawful order because his superior didn't want him praying "in Jesus name." But when Congress got word of his $3,000 fine for his prayer, members ordered the Navy to remove the limitation and allow chaplains to pray as their "conscience dictates."
WND also has reported on several cases in which Christians have been cited, or threatened with citations, for disorderly conduct for their expressions of their faith, including praying in a city park, and practicing praise and worship music in a church building.