A couple years ago in casual conversation with a friend from church, Cyndi Simpson learned that her county's governing board opened its public meetings with prayers, typically ones referring to Jesus or ending with an "amen."
Simpson, a longtime resident of Chesterfield County, Va., knew right away that she would approach the county board with a different kind of prayer. A member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation for some 30 years, she also practices Wicca, a nature-based neo-pagan faith sometimes known as witchcraft. Simpson's friend told her that the county maintains a list of religious leaders who are invited to give invocations.
"I called up the county clerk and requested to be placed on the list of persons interested in being invited to provide the board's opening prayer," Simpson told Church & State. "I told the clerk I wanted to offer the invocation as a witch, one from the Wiccan faith. I heard nothing from the clerk for several weeks."
When she finally received a response, it was by way of a letter from the county attorney. Steven L. Micas's Sept. 12, 2002, letter concluded that the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors had a policy that only allows for an invocation "consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition," not one that "invokes polytheistic, pre-Christian deities."
Simpson would eventually bring a federal lawsuit, with the help of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the ACLU of Virginia, challenging the board's prayer policy as a violation of the First Amendment.
Simpson's case is one of a growing number of disputes surrounding prayer before governmental meetings. As the nation has become more diverse in matters of belief, more and more citizens have stepped forward to protest what they see as a clearly improper entanglement between religion and government.
How did we get to this place in American history?
Prayers before at least some government meetings have been a part of the nation's landscape since its inception. But the federal courts have struggled to explain why such acts of worship do not run afoul of the Constitution's call to keep government and religion separate.
The federal judiciary has not provided an easily recognizable line between church and state. Indeed, the concept of "civil religion" has found significant support in a string of Supreme Court cases that turn on the fact that some government acknowledgments of religion are perceived--rightly or wrongly--as basically secular or incidental. The federal government gives official acknowledgment to Christmas and Thanksgiving by making them national holidays despite their religious significance. Our coins bear the phrase, "In God We Trust." The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate start each day with an invocation given by a chaplain. Sessions of the Supreme Court begin with the marshal saying, "Oyez, oyez, God save the United States and this Honorable Court."
The federal courts have upheld such government acknowledgments of religion on the theory that they are generic, ceremonial or historical and do not advance a sectarian perspective that favors one religion over others. That theory was used in...