District Court Enjoins Lord’s Prayer at County Council Meetings

Another legislative prayer case, this time from Delaware. For several years, the Sussex County Council has opened its weekly meetings with the Lord’s Prayer. In December, plaintiffs represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State brought suit to enjoin the practice, arguing that it violated the Establishment Clause. Last week, a federal district court agreed. Although Marsh v. Chambers allows legislative prayers, Judge Stark explained, the prayers must be nonsectarian, in order to avoid the implication that government endorses any particular religion. The Lord’s Prayer was undeniably a Christian, and thus sectarian, prayer; in fact, the version the Council used was a recognizably Protestant version of the prayer. (Comparative religion buffs take note: Jesus Seminar scholar John Dominic Crossan testified in the case that the Lord’s Prayer is not, in fact, exclusively Christian, an assertion Judge Stark dismissed). “The fact that the Lord’s Prayer has been the only prayer recited at the beginning of Council meetings for over six years,” Judge Stark argued, suggests that “the Council gives Christianity an unconstitutionally preferred status, sending a message to meeting attendees that the Council is promoting the beliefs of Christianity.” Judge Stark, sua sponte, stayed his injunction for a period of one month’s time in order to give the Council a chance to adopt a practice of nonsectarian prayers that would satisfy the Establishment Clause. The case is Mullin v. Sussex County (D. Del.) (May 15, 2012).

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