Court Battle In West Virginia Over Council Prayer

FFRF aims to end Parkersburg council prayer

The town of Parkersburg, West Virginia is being sued by local residents and the Freedom from Religion Foundation for beginning their council meetings with The Lord’s Prayer. Eric Engle, Daryl Cobranchi, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation took the matter to the U.S. District Court for their region and asked for the court to put an end to the prayers being recited prior to the meetings.

The problem with instituting public prayer in a public setting stems from the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Establishment Clause is often interpreted as prohibiting the government from putting one religion as being above another. The government cannot put one religion above another in any facet of government.

The Plaintiffs argue that by instituting a Christian prayer at the outset of the meetings, the local government is putting Christianity in a position of semi-approval. Thus, the government is in violation of that aspect of the First Amendment.

The mayor of the town, Tom Joyce, claims that the prayer is not actually part of the town council meeting. The meeting, in his estimation, does not begin formally until he bangs the gavel and calls the session to order. The prayer takes place prior to this and is not part of the meeting; therefore, the council is not in violation of the Establishment Clause.

Even though the prayer does not take place during the meeting according to the mayor, citizens have complained that they have felt coerced to take part in the prayer, or they are given glares and subjected to sneers of “Amen.” Thus, the people who do not participate in the prayer have their standing diminished directly in front of the council before the session begins.

One of the plaintiffs, Daryl Cobranchi, has stated that when he attended meetings for the last several years, he felt as though he was being treated poorly because of his desire to not be involved in the prayers. This is what prompted him and the other plaintiff, Eric Engle, to work with the Freedom From Religion Foundation to end the prayers.

The plaintiffs have made their demands very clear. They would like to have the federal court determine that the prayer is a violation of the First Amendment and to declare that it must end. Moreover, they would like to take $1 in damages and have their court fees paid. The suit will commence in the coming weeks.


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