Roanoke County’s Board of Supervisors may be headed toward another discussion of prayer following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling handed down Monday. The board dealt with the matter in 2012, eventually passing a nonsectarian prayer policy that Supervisor Al Bedrosian is ready to strike from the books.
“The freedom of religion doesn’t mean that every religion has to be heard,” said Bedrosian, who added that he is concerned about groups such as Wiccans and Satanists. “If we allow everything … where do you draw the line?”
The supervisor campaigned on the idea of eliminating the policy, and the ruling has breathed new life into his idea for a policy that could lead to the exclusion of non-Christian groups from the invocation.
Commenting on Monday, Bedrosian said he envisions a setup by which the supervisors would approve, individually, people from their districts to offer the opening prayer. That system would hold supervisors accountable to their districts, he added.
When asked if he would allow representatives from non-Christian faiths and non-faiths, including Jews, Muslims, atheists and others, the Hollins District supervisor said he likely would not.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation that filed the complaint that sparked the 2012 discussion, said Monday that the group was very disappointed in the ruling and saw Bedrosian’s proposal as a dangerous theocratic point of view that has been given traction by the Supreme Court, where it had none under the position of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“You can see the damage the Supreme Court has done today just by that quote alone,” Gaylor said.
If a non-Christian wished to pray during a meeting under his idea for the prayer policy, Bedrosian said, he or she would be able to do so during the allotted time for citizen comment.
“I think America, pretty much from founding fathers on, I think we have to say more or less that we’re a Christian nation with Christian ideology,” Bedrosian said. “If we’re a Christian nation, then I would say that we need to move toward our Christian heritage.”
The county’s current policy, adopted following the 2012 complaints by Gaylor’s group and the American Civil Liberties Union, was drafted by County Attorney Paul Mahoney to meet the standards the appeals court had set in ruling sectarian prayer unconstitutional — reasoning that the practice can leave religious minorities and nonbelievers feeling like outsiders.
Based on a model provided by Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian-based legal group, the policy asks that those giving the invocation avoid “sectarian references” and comments disparaging other beliefs. As part of the policy, a process was created so that any citizen can ask to deliver the invocation.
The board revisited the topic of prayer at its meetings at the start of the year at the behest of the newly seated Bedrosian. It took no action at the time, but with Monday’s Supreme Court ruling condoning ceremonial prayers, even those including overt references to sectarian beliefs, there could be a gap for Bedrosian to readdress the issue locally. Bedrosian added that he felt it was a good time for county residents to participate in a conversation about religion, and its role in their lives.
Gaylor said Bedrosian’s position is one of Christian entitlement, an attitude that can make believers of other faiths and nonbelievers uncomfortable. She questioned how he would persuade members of religious minorities to vote for him when he wouldn’t allow them to deliver the invocation at local government meetings.
She also pointed out that, in some American localities, like predominantly Muslim suburbs around Detroit, such invocations may be mostly Muslim instead of adhering to the Christian bias of Southwest Virginia and the town in New York that found itself in the nation’s high court.
“It’s hard for me to believe that if that had come out of Dearborn and they were having exclusively Muslim prayer, that the Supreme Court would have reached the same conclusion,” she said.
There is no requirement for local governments to have a policy on prayer, or to have an invocation at all.
Asked whether he felt the high court’s decision would alter the current policy on prayer, board Chairman Joe McNamara said,
“I don’t know, I don’t really think it should substantially change what we’re doing, but that’s not to say that it won’t.
“If Al wants to bring it back up again, he can. Or anybody else can,” McNamara said. “It didn’t strike me as something that would change our policy tremendously.”
Mahoney, who crafted Roanoke County’s policy, said Monday that he had not reviewed the decision and didn’t want to comment on its possible implications.
It could also stir discussion in other localities. Giles County has grappled with the use of religious items in schools, and Roanoke City Councilman Sherman Lea, a minister who drew some criticism in 2009 for referencing Jesus in an invocation, asked the city attorney to research the ruling and illuminate its implications.
“I’m pleased with that decision,” Lea said, after hearing reports of the ruling. “I’m not sure how it’s all going to come down, but I think it’s a great step in the right direction given where our country is right now.”
Staff writer Matt Chittum contributed to this report.