Henrico County has decided to drop the opening prayer from its public Board of Supervisors meetings, effective immediately.
The invocations had been a staple of the meetings for at least the past 25 years, according to longtime members of the board and county government.
The decision was reached Tuesday evening following a closed session to address a complaint the county received June 13. An e-mailer, who was identified as a user of county services but not a resident, took issue with an invocation delivered the previous evening.
On June 12, a Baptist minister closed his invocation with the words, "In Christ's name I pray". That invocation, coincidentally, was delivered on the same evening the Board considered an issue pertaining to a new mosque on Hungary Road. Dozens of Muslims were in attendance. The e-mailer said such prayer created "an atmosphere of hostility."
Subsequently, Henrico County also received a formal complaint from the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. The complaints drew attention to a federal court case.
In 2011, a federal court ruled in the case of Joyner v. Forsyth County (NC), that sectarian prayers before public boards violate the First Amendment.
The Henrico board leader said it was a very difficult decision, but also an appropriate one.
"I don't think our citizens expect us to come down and violate the law just because of our personal convictions," said Chairman Richard Glover, a longtime member of the board.
Henrico's county attorney added that there was an option to enforce non-sectarian prayers, but the county was reluctant to tell religious leaders what to say.
"The board felt it was simply easier and would offend no citizens, and frankly, would be all inclusive simply to not have a prayer," said County Attorney Joseph Rapisarda.
Dr. Cecil Chambers, pastor at Skipwith Baptist Church, recently delivered an invocation before the board.
"To do away with that seems to me to be a severe case of historical amnesia about the foundation of our nation," Chambers said. "I think it would be a mistake because if communities will work, and do the hard work of understanding one another, there are ways in which we should be working together," he added.
Ultimately, the county decided not to risk further legal exposure.
"It's been very meaningful to me," Glover said, referring to the opening prayers. "Last night was our first night of [not] doing that. And there was something missing," he added.
The board considered replacing the invocations with a moment of silence, but that idea ultimately was rejected.
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