Praying Using Jesus' Name Unconstitutional

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Using Jesus' name during public prayers is unconstitutional, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The 2006 case involved a city councilman in Fredericksburg, Va., who had frequently used the name of Jesus during prayer to open meetings.

Click play to hear more on this case from John Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute.

No Jesus in Prayer?

The three-judge panel for the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Wednesday that "the practice of members of Town Council invoking name(s) specifically associated with the Christian faith violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment."

In response, the Fredericksburg city councilman involved in the case, Hashmel Turner, says his prayers are not going to change.

"As far as me altering my prayer, it's not going to happen," the Rev. Turner, a Baptist minister, told Fredericksburg's Free Lance-Star. But one of Turner's attorneys said he wouldn't break the law either.

"He would not violate what the government of Fredericksburg, Va., has said -- and what they've said is 'you can pray, as long as you don't refer to Jesus, or a specific god,' John Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, told CBN News.

"So Rev. Turner said he's just not going to pray under this decision. He would be in violation of the law. He's not going to do that. He's going to wait and see if the Supreme Court will hear this case and reverse this decision," Whitehead said.

Government Writing Prayer

Turner sued the city in 2006 after the council passed a policy requiring invocations to be nondenominational. His attorneys with the institute - an organization that takes up cases of religious freedom - argued that the government was "writing prayer" if it told Turner how to pray.

Turner lost in trial court, and the federal appeals court upheld that verdict.

"This ruling shows exactly how dangerous the government speech doctrine is: it extinguishes free speech," Whitehead said.

"If the government can censor speech on the grounds that it is so-called 'government speech,' it will not be long before this label becomes a convenient tool for silencing any message that does not conform to what government officials deem appropriate," he added.

On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia faxed a response to Turner and other city council members.

"An invocation at the beginning of a city council meeting is an official act of the Fredericksburg government," ACLU Executive Director Kent Willis wrote.

"It must, as the Fourth Circuit has now mandated, be free of religious references in order to avoid sending the message to citizens that Fredericksburg prefers one religion over all others," he said.

Appealing to the Supreme Court

Turner plans to appeal to the Supreme Court, his attorneys say.

"In this particular case, I think there are at least four judges on the Supreme Court who will want to hear this case, so it may be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court," Whitehead said. "There's chance we could win this case in the Supreme Court, because there are a number of judges across the country that have said this whole idea of the separation of church and state and how religious people are treated in public places has gone too far," he added.

People for the American Way, one of the groups representing the city of Fredericksburg, responded to Turner's plans for appeal.

"The appellate court's decision, written by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, was unanimous," said Judith E. Schaeffer, Legal Director, People For the American Way Foundation. "It is unfortunate that Rev. Turner - who is seeking special rights to which no elected official is entitled - apparently intends to continue to take up the time and attention of his own City Council in further pursuit of this misguided lawsuit."

Turner has been a member of the Fredericksburg City Council since 2002. Council members are regularly called upon to open meetings in prayer. On several occasions, Turner ended his prayers "in the name of Jesus Christ."

"If council decides my way of praying is not in line with the rules it intends to follow, then I'll stop," Turner told the Free Lance-Star. "But I'm not going to allow the dictations of others to determine how I pray. I pray based on my beliefs."

Source: The Associated Press, The Washington Post, Free Lance-Star, The Rutherford Institute, People for the American Way Foundation

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