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Parkersburg, Freedom from Religion Foundation seek ruling in prayer lawsuit

No hearing expected with facts agreed upon

PARKERSBURG — Attorneys for the City of Parkersburg and the Freedom from Religion Foundation have asked a federal judge to decide a lawsuit over the recitation of the Lord’s prayer by City Council members without a hearing.

Both sides submitted a joint stipulation of facts to U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of West Virginia John T. Copenhaver Jr., laying out agreed-upon details of the case, in March. Motions by the plaintiffs and defendant seeking summary judgment in their favor were filed this week.

The move to have the case decided without trial is unrelated to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Freedom from Religion Foundation Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott said via email. It was in the works toward the end of last year because the facts of the case are not in dispute, just their legal interpretation.

The suit was filed in 2018 by the Freedom from Religion Foundation on behalf of two Parkersburg residents, Daryl Cobranchi and Eric Engle, who are members of the Wisconsin-based nonprofit organization that advocates for separation of church and state. It challenged City Council’s practice of standing and reciting the Lord’s prayer prior to the start of meetings, saying the action endorses Christianity over other religions and violates the First Amendment.

Council moved the prayer to before the meeting is called to order and stopped asking those in attendance to join in, although most still do recite the prayer, after the Foundation sent a letter opposing the practice in 2015.

A brief filed in support of the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment argues that U.S. Supreme Court decisions have recognized that the establishment clause of the First Amendment prohibits governments from adopting official prayers.

“This unwavering affiliation between Parkersburg and Christianity is causing ongoing injury to plaintiffs,” the brief says. “Citizens may not be forced into a circumstance of choosing between unwilling participation, discomforted observation or full-scale withdrawal.”

The plaintiffs argue the Parkersburg case falls under a 2017 decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that said a North Carolina county commission’s prayer practice was unconstitutional.

“The city’s ongoing prayer practice must be struck down,” the brief says. “A permanent injunction enjoining the inclusion of the Lord’s Prayer as a ceremonial prelude to Parkersburg’s meetings is the only relief that will remedy plaintiffs’ injuries.”

A brief filed by attorneys representing the city says the plaintiffs “have failed to show how the city’s practice has denigrated nonbelievers or religious minorities, threatened damnation, or preached conversion, coerced or proselytized, or ever treated or suggested the City Council would treat an attendee differently due to a failure to participate.”

The brief argues the prayer is respectful, brief and constitutional, fitting with a tradition of legislative prayer the country has long allowed.

Enjoining council members from reciting the prayer, the defendants’ brief says, would itself be “a bold violation of the establishment clause.”

Each side can file a response by May 11, said Jordan Palmer, attorney with Flaherty Sensabaugh Bonasso in Wheeling, the law firm hired by the city’s insurer. Then the judge will likely take the arguments under advisement and craft an order in the weeks to come, Palmer said.

Evan Bevins can be reached at ebevins@newsandsentinel.com.

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