Warrenton Town Councilman Jerry Wood presented the invocation at the March 12 town council meeting, as he has done at every meeting for about five years. Wood is comfortable offering a prayer that asks for heavenly guidance for the council and gives thanks for the blessings that residents of Warrenton enjoy. His fellow councilmen say they appreciate his contribution.
Before the prayer on March 12, Mayor Carter Nevill introduced Wood as “chaplain,” but Wood insists he is not a chaplain. A member of council for six years, Wood is a retired pharmacist and former delegate to the Virginia General Assembly, 31st District.
“I make sure to keep the prayers as neutral as possible,” he said in an interview April 8. He brought out sheaths of papers, covered with standard prayers that he uses as the basis for the invocations. The prayers include acknowledgements of the contributions of veterans and long-standing businesses in the town; he prays for the town council members and their families. The invocation is directed to town council members, not the public, he said.
During councilman’s time at the March 12 meeting, Wood suggested that perhaps the council should include other voices who wish to offer prayers to open council meetings. He said that he would like to invite local clergy men and women from Fauquier County to offer their own invocations.
Although Wood said he has received no complaints about the prayers, about a year ago town attorney Whit Robinson explained to him that a 5-4, 2014 Supreme Court decision means that governmental agencies should not appear to endorse one religion over others.
Because Wood is the only one to give the invocation, it could be interpreted that his personal version of Christianity is endorsed by the town, Robinson told him.
Robinson said that a 2014 Court of Appeals (for the 4th district) case suggests that Wood’s new initiative would be more in keeping with the appropriate use of prayer at official government meetings.
Wood said he is not sure he’ll be able to recruit clergy to give the invocations at every meeting, but “I don’t want to see the opening prayer just go away. I would hate for religion to be taken out of it. You can have it be non-denominational, but I would like to be able to thank God. It’s important to have God in government.”
The legal case
A lawsuit was presented by three members of the Rowan County, North Carolina, community against its five-member board of commissioners. In that community, the elected members of the board took turns at their meetings giving the invocations. Other citizens were prohibited from offering the prayer.
In Rowan, the pre-meeting prayers were exclusively Christian, and, according to the complaint in the lawsuit, sometimes bordered on proselytizing. The court ruled that the prayer practice as followed in Rowan was unconstitutional.
Circuit Court Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote, “We conclude that the Constitution does not allow what happened in Rowan County. The prayer practice served to identify the government with Christianity and risked conveying to citizens of minority faiths a message of exclusion.” He quoted the “Establishment Clause” as the basis for the majority decision.
The court decided that the Establishment Clause does not require that the meeting-opening prayer be non-sectarian, rather that the opportunity to offer the prayer is open to different faiths. And while it is not unconstitutional for legislators to offer the invocations, the opportunity must not be limited to only legislators.
Wood said that since he will be leaving council in June of 2020 – he is not running for another term – it seemed like a good time to open up the process to local clergy. “It just seems like the right time to look at it.”
He said he plans to ask for input from the Rev. Decker Tapscott of the Faith Christian Church and international Outreach Center, the Rev. Ben Moss at St. James’ Episcopal Church and Pastor Jay Lawson of Warrenton Baptist Church. Wood would like to include someone from the Jewish faith, but has not connected with anyone yet.
He said he has spoken to some members of the clergy to see if they would be willing to give a more “neutral” version of a prayer at government-sponsored events. He related, “They said, ‘When I pray, I pray to Jesus Christ.’”
Wood pointed out that the law does not require the town to go outside its borders to seek representatives of other religions, but he is more than happy to open up the process to include all of Fauquier County.
Councilman Wood said that clergy representing any denomination are welcome to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 804-263-2268.