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Christian Prayers Nixed in PA Board Meetings

(CN) - A western Pennsylvania county board of supervisors cannot open meetings with Christian prayers, a federal judge ruled.

Barbara Hudson, a Jewish woman, regularly attends meetings of the Pittsylvania Board of Supervisors.

After years of allegedly listening to the board open its meetings with Christian prayers, Hudson said she made her first public objection in August 2011 after learnig how the 4th Circuit handled a similar issue in Forsyth County, N.C.

She testified in a subsequent deposition that her complaint did not produce the intended result.

"At the board meeting on August 16th, instead of one sectarian prayer, every single member of the board got up and did Christian prayers, knowing that it was me," Hudson said. "And I felt that I was being assaulted. They were using prayer to assault."

After entering a preliminary injunction entered in February 2012, a federal judge in Danville, Va., issued a permanent injunction Tuesday.

"Disagreeing with the clear holdings of the Fourth Circuit on the unconstitutionality of sectarian legislative prayer, the board argues that its practice of opening each meeting with Christian prayers is constitutional," U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski wrote. "Bound by controlling Fourth Circuit and Supreme Court precedent, the court must reject the Board's argument."

In School District of Abington v. Schempp, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school children and their parents had standing to complain of the school's practice of reading Bible verses and reciting the Lord's Prayer every day before classes began.

Relying on Schempp, the 4th Circuit concluded Suhre v. Haywood County by finding that Suhre had standing to contest the display of the Ten Commandments in a North Carolina courthouse.

"Just as the plaintiffs in Schempp and Suhre, Hudson has had direct personal contact with the sectarian prayer practices of the board," Urbanski said. "Hearing with her own ears the Christian prayers offered by Board members as part of a formal governmental meeting, Hudson's contact is neither casual nor remote. It is direct injury, and, as such, Hudson has standing to pursue an establishment clause claim concerning the Christian prayers she repeatedly heard."

The board also failed to show that Hudson's bristly history with it makes her claim invalid.

"As was the case with Richard Suhre, Hudson appears to be a 'contentious character' in Pittsylvania County," Urbanski wrote. "However, Hudson's historic role as a board antagonist is beside the point. The fact that Hudson has clashed with the board in the past cannot absolve the Board of its clear violation of the establishment clause or change the fact that Hudson personally experienced the board's practice of opening each meeting with a Christian prayer that was offensive to her."

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