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New Kent attorney urging supervisors to review county code, practices on prayer

By Amy Jo Martin, amartin@tidewaterreview.com

3:03 PM EDT, June 17, 2014

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NEW KENT – The New Kent County attorney is urging supervisors to review its prayer policy in open meetings.

"I sent a memo out to the board members recently suggesting that they take a look at their practices and referenced the Town of Greece v. Galloway case in order to see if they can make a better policy," said County Attorney Michele Gowdy in a phone interview Monday.

Town of Greece v. Galloway, was a U.S. Supreme Court case in which the court ruled last month that local governments may open their meetings with religious prayers that express the beliefs of one faith, but may not praise the virtues of one faith or speak negatively of other faiths/believers.

The Supreme Court said that the courts may not judge individual prayers but rather the governmental body's "pattern of prayer" to see if it is unconstitutional and qualifies as "coercion," or the persuasion of those with different beliefs by using threatening or forceful tactics.

The New Kent Supervisors traditionally start their meetings with a Christian prayer, which fits within the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Town of Greece V. Galloway.

However, Gowdy is concerned that some of the board's practices do not follow the court ruling, including asking the meeting attendees to stand for the opening prayer and remain standing for the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Town of Greece v. Galloway ruling could also influence the prayer procedures in the New Kent Planning Commission, which follows the same pattern as the board of supervisors.

At Gowdy's encouragement, commissioners changed their opening prayer to a moment of silence in November 2011, much to the dismay of residents and some commissioners.

Commissioners took up a vote in January 2012 to restore prayer at the meetings, but it was defeated 5-4. A subsequent motion was made to keep the moment of silence and was approved with a 6-3 vote.

Gowdy had cited the Joyner v. Forsyth County case, which eventually went to the U.S. Supreme court. The court upheld U.S. Fourth District Court of Appeals judge's ruling that, "sectarian prayers must not serve as the gateway to citizen participation in the affairs of local government."

The decision prevented the Forsyth County, North Carolina Planning Commission from starting its meetings with prayers because it was the court's decision that doing so would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

As of Monday, Gowdy had not heard from the board.

Martin can be reached by phone at 804-885-0040.