Court rules in favor of Wiccan in prayer lawsuit
Date 20/11/2003 | Topic: Media
| RICHMOND, Va. -- Chesterfield County officials cannot endorse an official religious preference while excluding other religions from opening board meetings with a prayer, a federal judge ruled Thursday. |
U.S. District Court Judge Dennis W. Dohnal ruled that the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors discriminated against Cyndi Simpson, a Wiccan, when it prohibited her from joining a list of clergy to deliver the invocations.
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Wicca is a religion based on respect for the earth, nature and the cycle of the seasons. Wiccans consider themselves witches, pagans or neo-pagans.
The judge said the board violated Simpson's First and 14th Amendment rights of equal and free expression of her religious beliefs, while allowing Christians to practice theirs, and the separation of church and state clauses.
Dohnal addressed several issues in his order, namely over the "legislative prayer," which has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court for a governing body.
He said there were limitations, though, and a "prohibition against utilizing prayer to proselytize or advance any particular religion by sanctioning a preference for a particular set of beliefs."
"She was presumptively excluded because of a stated governmental preference for a different set of religious beliefs and viewpoint, albeit the beliefs of a large segment--if not the majority--of the population," Dohnal said.
Simpson, who had not seen the written opinion, was delighted with the judge's decision and credited it with bringing credibility to witchcraft as a religion.
"It is puzzling to me after Sept. 11, people could possibly endorse religious intolerance by the government," she said. "Christian is only part of our heritage."
In December, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed the lawsuit on behalf of Simpson, 47.
She contacted the Chesterfield board last year and asked to be put on the list of volunteers. Officials refused.
"Chesterfield's nonsectarian invocations are traditionally made to a divinity that is consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition," County Attorney Steven L. Micas wrote in a letter to Simpson in September, 2002.
Micas did not return a phone call for comment.
Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU, called the ruling a victory for non-majority religions.
"Religious freedom isn't just the notion that we get to practice the religion of our choice," Willis said. "We cannot have true religious freedom if government can promote or inhibit religious expression."
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By DAVID E. LEIVA
Associated Press Writer
Published November 13, 2003