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County prayer appeal will be filed Monday
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County prayer appeal will be filed Monday

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Pittsylvania County will file a petition Monday requesting again that the U.S. District Court in Danville dissolve or modify its injunction barring the board of supervisors from opening meetings with sectarian prayer.

The move comes after the county lost a critical appeal Wednesday in its legal battle with the ACLU of Virginia and county resident Barbara Hudson, who argued that the board’s practice violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

The appeal, before the three-judge panel from the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, was considered late.

Hudson sued the county over the practice of supervisors leading Christian prayers before board meetings.

In a rough draft of the board’s motion to dissolve the injunction, its attorney Bill Stanley argues the district court’s ruling in the Pittsylvania case pertained only to the content of the prayers, “not the process by which the prayer giver was chosen.”

Stanley also points out that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the town of Greece, New York, did not violate the Constitution when it allowed ministers to deliver Christian prayers at its town council meetings.

Hudson and the ACLU have argued that the Greece case is different because invited members of the clergy gave invocations, whereas board members in Pittsylvania County delivered prayers at the start of meetings.

Also, the board points to the Supreme Court’s ruling, and argues that “prayers opening town board meetings did not have to be nonsectarian to comply with the Establishment Clause.”

“ The First Amendment was not violated by opening town meetings with prayer that comported with tradition of the United States, and that prayer at opening of town board meetings did not compel its citizens to engage in a religious observance, in violation of the Establishment Clause,” Stanley wrote.

The town of Greece’s policy was inclusive of preachers from different faiths.

In the board’s memorandum of points and authorities in support of its motion to dissolve the injunction, the county also argues that the Supreme Court “has now made clear that Hudson’s being subjected to being offended by” the board’s practice and its “effect regarding potential discord and divisiveness in the community do not justify a finding of a constitutional violation.”

Also, the board argues that whoever offers the prayer is irrelevant in determining whether the prayer is constitutionally permissible.

In the appellate court’s decision, it said Pittsylvania County’s appeal could not be considered because it was filed 145 days late. The county’s notice of appeal was due on April 26, 2013 — 30 days after the U.S. District Court’s March 26, 2013, ruling.

Stanley said he anticipated the court’s decision and will file a petition Monday in U.S. District Court asking the judge to lift his March 26, 2013, injunction, which barred the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors from holding sectarian prayers at the start of its meetings.

Stanley and the board are hopeful that Urbanski will lift his injunction following last month’s reversal of a similar injunction in Forsyth County, North Carolina. There, U.S. District Court Judge James A. Beaty Jr. lifted a 2010 injunction that forbade county commissioners from allowing sectarian prayer.

Stanley pointed out that the Forsyth County case initial injunction was used in Hudson’s and the ACLU’s legal victory over the county in 2013.

Crane reports for the Danville Register & Bee.

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