Following complaints from a Wisconsin-based atheist group against a Virginia city that opens public meetings with prayer, the Alliance Defense Fund and the Family Foundation of Virginia have offered to provide pro bono legal assistance if the city adopts a prayer policy that is challenged in court.
The 14,000-member Freedom From Religion Foundation had sent letters of complaint to the city of Chesapeake, Virginia because of what the group called its “illegal practice” of routine opening prayers at its public meetings.
ADF Senior Legal Council Mike Johnson, speaking in a press release announcing the pro bono aid, defended prayer in public meetings.
“America’s founders opened public meetings with prayer. Public officials today should be able to do the same,” Johnson said. “Those who oppose invocations are essentially arguing that the Founders were violating the Constitution as they were writing it. The Constitution allows public officials today to do the same thing America’s Founders did.”
“Public prayer has been an essential part of our heritage since the time of this nation’s founding, and our Constitution has always protected the activity. Moreover, such prayer can include sectarian references without running afoul of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.”
Johnson also characterized the atheist group’s complaints as “threats.”
Victoria Cobb, president of The Family Foundation of Virginia, charged that the Freedom From Religion Foundation had based its complaint on “flawed legal analysis and misrepresented court cases.”
The August 4 letter from the ADF to the city of Chesapeake says that the legality of public invocations is “beyond dispute,” listing several legal precedents. In one example it quotes Chief Justice Warren Burger’s opinion in the 1983 decision Marsh v. Chambers.
There, the chief justice said that opening legislative sessions and other public sessions with prayer is “deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.”
“From colonial times through the founding of the Republic and ever since, the practice of legislative prayer has coexisted with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom,” Burger said.