Wynne v. Great Falls, SC (2005)

In the rural town of Great Falls, South Carolina, Darla Wynne requested that prayers used to open Town Council meetings not privilege a deity exclusive to one particular faith. Wynne, a Wiccan priestess, won her court case putting a stop to the use of the name Jesus Christ in legislative prayer. She also won upon the town’s appeal to the 4th circuit court, which in July of 2004 found the “Town Council’s exclusive practice of explicitly advancing exclusively Christian themes to be unconstitutional.” The town of Great Falls had been in the habit of opening each and every one of their Town Council meetings with exclusive prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. The prayers were intended not only for the council but explicitly for the public who attended the meetings, who stood, bowed their heads, and participated by saying “amen”. The mayor and all the Council members are Christian, and prayers are often lead by a particular Council member, John Broom.

Wynne had regularly attended these meetings since 1999, and in 2000 objected to the practice of referring to Jesus Christ and asked for the term ‘god’ to be used instead, or for prayers from diverse religions. She was told there would be no change. In 2001, the community filled a meeting, with more than 100 people as opposed to the usual half dozen, called by Council Members and local clergy to present letters and petitions to the Town Council in support of Christian prayer. Wynne asked again for nonsectarian prayer. She was subsequently threatened, harassed, her animals were killed, her home broken into, and she was told repeatedly that no matter what the court found, the exclusive practice would not change.

In 2003, the court found in Wynne’s favor, ordering the Town Council to refrain “from invoking the name of a specific deity associated with any one specific faith or belief in prayers given at Town Council meetings.” (p.6) The town cannot pursue their allegiance to a particular sect and cannot prefer one religious denomination. This is not constitutionally acceptable legislative prayer like that approved in Marsh, and this prayer violates the Establishment Clause. The town appealed, and again lost. They then attempted to appeal to the Supreme Court, but this petition was denied. Wynne is currently suing the town for the additional $65,000 in legal fees she incurred while the town attempted its second appeal unsuccessfully.

Rubin v. City of Burbank

The unconstitutionality of giving sectarian legislative prayers such as those invoking Jesus Christ was also addressed in the case of Rubin v. City of Burbank (California) in September of 2002. While this prohibition is offensive to some who see it as a curtailment of their right to express their religion accurately and fully, that court found that legislative prayers are given on government property, at a government function, included on the agenda, and would appear to an objective outsider to be part of the governmental proceedings. They are not private speech, and thus they are not protected as free speech, and it is appropriate to restrict the language of the prayers. This issue was previously brought up in the Marsh case, where the chaplain avoided references to Jesus.

Women’s Leadership

It is notable that this case, like the Simpson case in Virginia, was brought by a Wiccan priestess. While Simpson lost on appeal, both cases shifted the local practice from one of either exclusive or predominantly Christian sectarian prayer to prayer less exclusive to one religion. Women’s leadership is common in the Wiccan religion, and in these cases their efforts extend to the civic realm as well.