Wiccan sues county board after failing to get a prayer

Sunday, December 8, 2002

RICHMOND, Va. -- A woman who practices a religion rooted in witchcraft is suing county officials for refusing to add her name to a list of clergy invited to open board meetings with a prayer.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed the lawsuit Friday in U.S. District Court on behalf of Cynthia Simpson, a Wiccan.

The lawsuit claims the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors board discriminated against Simpson based on her religion by inviting Christian clergy to deliver invocations while refusing to allow her to do so.

"The county's treatment of Ms. Simpson amounts to the marking of Wicca with an official badge of dishonor," the lawsuit says. "It represents nothing less than overt, official governmental disapproval of a religious tradition."

The lawsuit accuses the board of violating the First Amendment's freedom of religion and separation of church and state clauses, as well as the constitutional guarantee of equal protection.

"The county supervisors shouldn't be sponsoring prayers at all, but when they do, they certainly can't play favorites," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United.

Chesterfield County Administrator Lane Ramsey said the board can invite whomever it wishes to give the invocation.

"We feel confident the position the Board of Supervisors has taken is a defensible position," he said.

According to the lawsuit, the county board routinely opens meetings with an invocation by guest clergy. Simpson asked the board to add her name to the list of volunteers for that duty earlier this year.

County Attorney Steven L. Micas sent Simpson a letter denying her request. He wrote that the invocations "are traditionally made to a divinity that is consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Based upon our review of Wicca, it is neo-pagan and involves polytheistic, pre-Christian deities."

The lawsuit said county supervisors ridiculed Simpson and her faith. An Oct. 5 article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted Supervisor Renny B. Humphrey as saying "I hope she's a good witch like Glinda," the witch in "The Wizard of Oz." Humphrey also said: "There is always Halloween."

The article also quoted Kelley E. Miller, the board chairman, as saying, "It's a mockery. It is not any religion I would subscribe to."

Neither Miller nor Simpson immediately returned phone calls seeking comment.

Wicca is a religion based on respect for the earth, nature and the cycle of the seasons. Wiccans consider themselves witches, pagans or neo-pagans.

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