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Battle Over Prayer at Sussex County, Delaware Council Meetings

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A federal court should grant a preliminary injunction blocking a Delaware county council from opening its meetings with distinctively Christian prayer, Americans United for Separation of Church and State said in a court filing today.

Americans United, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, is challenging the Sussex County Council’s long-standing practice of opening each of its meetings with the recitation of a Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer, led by Council President Michael H. Vincent.

In its court filing, the group argues that the practice is so patently unconstitutional that it should be blocked by a preliminary injunction while the case is under way.

“Sussex County’s promotion of the Lord’s Prayer shows favoritism toward the majority religion and excludes those residents who don’t share that faith,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United. “Residents are pressured to participate in the Prayer, as the Council members can see who in their meeting audience is taking part.”

Americans United filed the Mullin v. Sussex County lawsuit in June with the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware on behalf of four Sussex County residents -- the Rev. John Steinbruck, Barbara Mullin, Julie Jackson and William O’Connor. All plaintiffs in the lawsuit have attended council meetings in the past and were offended by the governmental body’s promotion of one religious perspective and disrespect of their own beliefs.

The council meetings occur on most Tuesdays of the year. The council has opened its meetings with the Lord’s Prayer since 1971.

In its court filing, AU observes, “The Council recites a version of the Lord’s Prayer that would be comfortable to a traditionalist Episcopalian but unfamiliar and disagreeable to a progressive Episcopalian, a Catholic, or a Congregationalist. Indeed, the Council’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is not just religion-specific; it is denomination-specific. The Council has, for that reason, alienated and excluded members of the audience, Christian and non-Christian alike.

“Prohibiting the Council from reciting the Lord’s Prayer will not injure the defendants,” the filing goes on to assert. “It will not keep them from opening Council meetings with non-sectarian solemnizing words or with a moment of silent reflection. It will simply require the Council to put its recitation of the Lord’s Prayer on hold until this Court determines whether the practice is constitutionally valid.”

Along with Luchenitser, the case is being litigated by AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, AU Madison Fellow Brooke R. Hardy (member, State Bar of Georgia; not admitted in D.C. and supervised by Luchenitser) and Delaware attorney David L. Finger.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.


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