SC attorney general joins Great Falls' appeal over prayer to specific god at meetings - - Columbia, South Carolina

SC attorney general joins Great Falls' appeal over prayer to specific god at meetings

(Columbia) Aug. 10, 2004 - South Carolina has again joined the Town of Great Falls' appeal of a federal court’s order preventing the town from mentioning the name of Jesus Christ in prayers at town meetings.

A three-judge panel of the Fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals on July 22nd ruled that the Great Falls Town Council no longer could invoke the name of Jesus at government meetings, calling it an unconstitutional government advancement of one religion.

The Great Falls Town Council agreed unanimously to file a petition for rehearing and rehearing en banc, which would have their appeal heard by the entire court. Great Falls Mayor H.C. Starnes says most of the people in the town would want the decision challenged.

Legal experts say the challenge is a long shot, but South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster announced on Tuesday his office last week filed an Amicus brief to the full US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in support of Great Falls.

In a release McMaster explained the ruling “will inevitably plunge headlong into the thorny thicket of prayer content review. Such content-based review raises serious Free Speech and Free Exercise problems under the First Amendment.”

He said, “It is illogical and unhistorical to conclude that while a prayer for Divine guidance is constitutionally acceptable, prayer to a Divine Being is not.”

The court's ruling came after Wiccan high priestess Darla Kaye Wynne sued the town in 2001 after its leaders refused to open meetings only with nonsectarian prayers or to allow members of different faiths to lead the prayers.

Last August a US district judge agreed and issued an order prohibiting council from using the “name of a specific deity associated with any one specific faith or belief in prayers given at town council meetings.” Great Falls hasn't used the name of Jesus Christ in prayers since then.

Great Falls Councilman Earl Taylor, who says he doesn't agree with the decision, plans abide by it, "We still have prayer at our meetings, but the words 'Jesus Christ' is not included in the prayer." If the town of Great Falls’ appeal to the full US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals fails, the next possible step would be a petition to the United States Supreme Court.

Some local government leaders in South Carolina are continuing to pray to a specific god at meetings, despite the ruling. Charleston County Councilman Tim Scott described the ruling as part of a continuing attack on Christianity, and he said he hopes his council will fight back by including Jesus in its prayers.

Andrew Siegel, an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina School of Law, says unless the decision is reviewed or altered that it is the constitutional rule for the region covered by the court. The ruling applies to all government meetings in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, says the ruling means other councils should stop giving sectarian prayers or face expensive lawsuits they are likely to lose.

updated 11:15am by Eva Pilgrim

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