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Judge bars Christian prayers at county meetings

A Roanoke federal judge has ordered the Pittsylvania County supervisors to halt the routine use of Christian prayers to open their meetings.

U.S. District Judge Michael F. Urbanski held Friday that none of the arguments in favor of the county board’s prayer policy “has any merit.”

Concluding that a citizen who challenged the prayers was likely to succeed on the merits of her constitutional claim, Urbanski forbade the board from continuing “its present practice of routinely opening its meetings with Christian prayers.”

“By offering only Christian prayers, the Board has not attempted to create a public forum in which all are welcome to express their faiths. Rather, by praying to only one deity, the Board impermissibly wraps the power and prestige of the Pittsylvania County government around the personal religious beliefs of individual Board members. Plainly, the practice is government endorsement of religion,” Urbanski wrote.

Under prevailing law, Urbanski said, it made no difference that board members offer prayers before the gavel falls to start the board’s official agenda.

Urbanski handed down three opinions in the case Friday. The first denied the request of the plaintiff to remain anonymous in the suit.  The second denied the supervisors’ motion to dismiss the challenge to their prayer policy. The third ordered the board to stop routine Christian prayers.

By Peter Vieth

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