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Federal judge rules against Parkersburg City Council in Lord’s prayer case

File photo Members of Parkersburg City Council confer during an October 2021 meeting. A federal judge issued a ruling Tuesday in a case filed in 2018 over council members' recitation of the Lord's prayer.

PARKERSBURG — A federal judge issued an injunction against Parkersburg City Council’s recitation of the Lord’s prayer at its meetings.

Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia issued a 30-page decision Tuesday prohibiting the council from continuing its practice of reciting the Lord’s prayer just before the official start of each meeting.

“The City Council’s prayer practice most clearly runs afoul of the 4th Circuit’s concern with identifying the government with a single preferred religious sect,” wrote Copenhaver in his ruling. “… the City Council wrapped itself in a single faith.”

The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation filed the suit in 2018 on behalf of local members Daryl Cobranchi and Eric Engle.

According to a release from the foundation announcing the ruling, Cobranchi felt singled out for not standing for or participating in the Lord’s prayer, a practice it claims “assigns to second-class status anyone who is not Christian.” Engle said he has felt uncomfortable and pressured to participate in the Christian prayer during public meetings, the release stated.

“In a country currently plagued by Christian nationalism, this decision is an affirmation of our secular constitutional order and a badly-needed patch in the wall of separation between church and state,” Engle said in the release.

The foundation also welcomed the judgment.

“The government shouldn’t be in the business of composing or adopting official prayers, as the court has affirmed,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Those prayers turned non-believers into outsiders, now at 29 percent of the population, and non-Christians in general, about 35 percent overall, which is a lot of citizens to exclude.

“We’re delighted that reason has prevailed, and that our secular Constitution ‘will be done.'”

The permanent injunction is binding on the City of Parkersburg and all current and future members of the City Council.

The court awarded nominal damages in favor of each of the plaintiffs and against the defendant in the amount of $1 each, together with interest from and after the date of the ruling. A motion for attorneys’ fees is to be filed by May 31.

Parkersburg Mayor Tom Joyce said Tuesday he has not seen the ruling yet and declined to comment at this time.

City Council President Zach Stanley did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

The foundation has been monitoring the council’s prayer practices for years, sending a letter in 2015 contending the recitation of the prayer during meetings violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution regarding the separation of church and state.

The City Attorney at the time Joe Santer advised council members to say the prayer prior to calling the meeting to order but not invite the public to stand or participate, though many in attendance still choose to do so. Santer said no specific council member should lead the prayer, as had been done in the past.

“However, defendant’s legislative prayer remained unchanged inasmuch as City Council members continued to be the prayer-givers and the defendant violated the City Attorney’s recommendation to not invite the public to stand or participate, both by the practice of City Council members of standing … to recite the Lord’s Prayer and, at times, by gesture of the Council President,” the ruling said.

In 2018, then-Council President John Reed gestured for people to stand on at least three occasions in the year prior to the lawsuit’s filing among 12 video excerpts in evidence. The decision said the frequency of the gesture allows it to be “fairly characterized as greater than mere ‘stray events.'”

The ruling acknowledges other court decisions upholding the practice of legislative prayer, but says this case is different because it is an exclusively Christian prayer led by council members, rather than a clergy member or member of the public.

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