Sussex County Council prayer tradition challenged in court

For more than four decades, Sussex County Council has opened its meetings with the Lord’s Prayer.  A judge is reviewing a challenge to the practice.

Attorneys for four local citizens and for the county delivered their arguments in U.S. District Court in Wilmington Wednesday. 

Arguing Sussex County’s motion to dismiss the complaint, attorney J. Scott Shannon termed the practice a “legislative invocation” and said it did not proselytize or advocate for any one religion – nor, he said, did it disparage any other religion. 

“We have a prayer that consists of widely accepted, universal themes,” Shannon said, later adding that “legislative invocations are not religious practice.” 

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The citizens who complained contacted Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed the lawsuit asking for a preliminary injunction last month. 

AUSCS attorney Alex Luchenitser said council’s practice of beginning its meetings with the Lord’s Prayer was “a quintessential violation of the U.S. Constitution.”  He added that the prayer and council’s actions amounted to an endorsement of Christianity, although the words in the prayer do not specifically refer to Jesus Christ.

“The prayer, itself, advances the Christian religion,” Luchenitser said. 

“The fact that we have a prayer of one religion, the same prayer every meeting, being delivered in a small council chamber where the council members can see who’s joining in the prayer, who’s standing up, who isn’t, who’s reciting the prayer – and all of the audience members can see that, too – that puts a lot of pressure on people to participate,” Luchenitser said during an interview after the hearing.

Sussex County Councilman Vance Phillips attended the court session, watching from a wheelchair as he recuperates from serious injuries suffered during the crash of his hang-glider-like plane in Virginia in October.  He and Shannon declined further comment after the two-and-a-half hour session before Federal Judge Leonard Stark.

It is not known when a decision will be made on either motion.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal