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City must pay $60K after atheist group sues to stop Lord's Prayer at council meetings       

parkersburg council
Council members of Parkersburg, West Virginia, hold a meeting. |

A city in West Virginia has been ordered to pay $60,000 in legal fees after being sued by a national secular legal organization that objected to the practice of opening city council meetings with the Lord's Prayer.

In an announcement Thursday, the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation said that a federal court had ordered the town of Parkersburg to pay $60,000 to cover attorney fees and other costs associated with the lawsuit filed on behalf of two nonreligious residents in 2018.

The lawsuit sought to get the Parkersburg City Council to stop a longstanding practice of reciting the Lord's Prayer, also called the "Our Father," before meetings.

U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr., an appointee of President Gerald Ford, ordered the city on Thursday to pay $58,031.40 in attorney fees and $971.28 in costs to FFRF and its two co-plaintiffs. 

Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, said in a statement she was "pleased" with the ruling, believing that "Parkersburg citizens who are not Christian or religious will no longer be treated like second-class citizens."

Parkersburg Mayor Tom Joyce told The Christian Post on Friday that he is "disappointed but not surprised" by the awarding of costs, noting that the fees "will be covered by the city's insurance carrier."

"I remain disappointed that a longstanding tradition was upended after a liberal minority filed a lawsuit over what has been a common practice in many cities and governing bodies for multiple generations," said Joyce, a Republican. 

"As mayor, I respect the court's decision and city council has elected to not pursue the matter any further, a decision I also respect. Prayer remains a daily part of my life and a vital component of how I live my life and discharge my duties as a son, brother, friend and mayor."

The lawsuit against the city argued that the council's recitation of the Lord's Prayer "has the primary effect of both advancing religion and expressing Defendant's preference for Christianity above all other religions and nonreligion."

"The City Council members have coerced participation in religion by leading meeting attendees in the Lord's Prayer and intimidating nonparticipants," the litigation states. 

The plaintiffs attended multiple council meetings and said they felt unwelcome due to the prayer and the alleged expectation that they participate.

In May, Copenhaver ruled in favor of the two residents, permanently blocking city officials from continuing the practice.

"By continually reciting, over a number of years, the same prayer clearly identifiable with a particular faith, without the opportunity for other faiths to be heard, the City Council impermissibly identified itself with a preferred religion," ruled Copenhaver.

"[T]he City Council wrapped itself in a single faith. That is exemplified by the unduly heightened risk of coercion by the state by virtue of the governmental identity of the prayer-givers acting in unison, the invariable nature of the sectarian prayer that is associated with and endorses Christianity, and the implicit and sometimes express invitation."

Copenhaver contrasted the Parkersburg prayer practice with that declared constitutional in the U.S. Supreme Court case Town of Greece v. Galloway, as the practices by the Town of Greece involved having clergy of different backgrounds give an invocation on behalf of officials rather than the same specific Christian prayer being offered every meeting.

Last month, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a Texas judge who allowed chaplains of different faith backgrounds to begin court sessions with invocations. The panel ruled that the judge could continue the practice because he tells attendees in advance they are not required to participate in the invocations and that not doing so wouldn't impact their cases. Additionally, the court found that prayer tradition upholds "denominational nondiscrimination."

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