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Lawyer wins challenge to Christian prayers at county board meetings

A lawyer who claimed regular Christian prayers at Pittsylvania County board meetings violated the First Amendment has won a court injunction against the practice.

U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski Wednesday issued a permanent injunction barring the board of supervisors from repeatedly opening meetings with prayers associated with any one religion.

The practice has the unconstitutional effect of affiliating the government with a single specific faith or belief, the judge wrote in his order and in a 24-page opinion.

Urbanski’s injunction does not prevent the board from beginning meetings with “a prayer or invocation that does not run afoul of the Establishment Clause.”

The use of such prayers or invocations, however, “must strive to be nondenominational so long as that is reasonably possible – it should send a signal of welcome rather than exclusion. It should not reject the tenets of other faiths in favor of just one,” Urbanski wrote, quoting a 2011 opinion from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Chatham lawyer Barbara Hudson – aided by the ACLU of Virginia – sued the county board in 2011 to end its practice of consistently using Christian prayers to open meetings.

After Urbanski denied the board’s motion to dismiss last February, the two sides engaged in mediation, but were unable to come to agreement.

The ACLU of Virginia said it would be seeking attorneys’ fees and costs. William M. Stanley, counsel for the county board, said he would be meeting with his clients to discuss their options.

This post was updated on Wednesday at 2:20 p.m. to add statements from the ALCU and Stanley.

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