When the U.S. Supreme Court hears the case of the Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Susan Galloway on Nov. 6, Hashmel Turner will be watching—and praying—from the spectators’ side.
But it was not that long ago that he could have been a more active participant in a similar case, bearing the name of Hashmel C. Turner Jr. v. the City Council of the City of Fredericksburg.
Turner v. Fredericksburg, like Greece v. Galloway, involved prayer at City Council meetings. But unlike Greece v. Galloway, when it was appealed to the nation’s highest court, it was declined.
Turner, 63, describes himself as a country boy. Born in Bowling Green and raised in Fredericksburg’s Mayfield neighborhood, the only extended period Turner spent away from the area was when he served in the Army in the Vietnam War.
The eldest in a poor family of 10 children, Turner did what he could to help: mowing lawns, selling newspapers and collecting bottles to recycle. Local churches donated food, but with Turner’s father away from home as a rigger in Washington and his sick mother struggling to make ends meet, the kids were often left wanting.
Turner’s mother died of cancer when he was 17 and the state sent his younger siblings to various foster homes. But Turner remained connected to his family, ensuring they were treated well.
FINDING THE FAITH
Although he was raised a Baptist, Turner says he saw his religion as more of a tradition than a conviction.
It wasn’t until 1968, when Turner was 17 years old, and the Billy Graham Crusade stopped in Fredericksburg, that he found his faith. This faith would one day lead Turner to court to defend his right to express it.
Decades later, as a Baptist minister, Turner decided that he would run for the Fredericksburg City Council to represent Ward 4.
“I felt a need that we have an African–American presence on the City Council as a minority representative for a minority ward,” said Turner. “And I—at the time—was the person that was, I guess, the highest-ranking community leader.”
Before running for City Council in 2002, Turner served as captain of his neighborhood watch and as president of the Mayfield Civic Association.
Turner reflects on his time on the City Council as a productive era for Fredericksburg. He was involved in the building of Dixon Park, the parking garage and Marriott hotel downtown, Lafayette Upper Elementary School and the new James Monroe High School.
“The council that I served on, we were responsible for seeing to it these things took place,” Turner said. “It was just a number of ongoing big projects that kept me interested and supportive of what was happening—made me very proud of my tenure.”
But in his eight years as a councilman, he would have a cross to bear.
In the case the Supreme Court has agreed to decide, Greece v. Galloway, a couple of citizens—a Jew and an atheist—sued the council for allegedly favoring Christianity in its opening prayers. With only four prayers in a decade offered by non-Christians, they alleged the council violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …”
Greece, a town of about 96,000 near Rochester, defended itself—and won—in the District Court with the assertion that the exclusion of non-Christian prayers was not intentional.
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization representing Galloway, appealed to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, and was successful in overturning the first decision.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal-defense service, however, petitioned that the Supreme Court have the final say, and, on May 20 of this year, it granted the petition.
Turner’s case, although it also cited First Amendment rights, was the opposite scenario.
The Fredericksburg City Council observes the practice of beginning each meeting with a prayer by one of the council members. Turner, as a member of the council, and a minister, used the name of Jesus Christ when it was his turn to pray.
In 2002, he received a complaint from a Jewish woman who said that she had been offended by his reference to Jesus. After removing himself from the prayer rotation for nearly a year, Turner said his conscience led him to, once again, pray in the name of Jesus at a meeting.
About a week later he received a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia—a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that provides legal representation—telling him that his prayers were unconstitutional.
To avoid a lawsuit, the Fredericksburg City Council voted to ban the invocation of a specific deity in the opening prayer.
“I was rather shocked because I had heard all of my other colleagues pray as they felt comfortable doing so,” Turner said. “They prayed and it was never questioned.”
VESSEL FOR THE LORD
Turner said he could not sit silently as Christian prayer was banished from council meetings.
“It wasn’t about me. It was about the rights of all Christians,” Turner said. “I was just the particular vessel at that time that the Lord convicted to take a stand, so I did.”
He sought legal advice from the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville-based civil liberties organization that provides free legal services.
Within a couple of months of the ban on sectarian prayers, Turner filed a lawsuit against the Fredericksburg City Council with the Rutherford Institute’s pro bono legal services.
“I truly felt that my rights were being violated,” he said. “I was being discriminated [against] because I was a Christian.”
According to Turner, the support he received was overwhelming. He was even invited to pray before the Virginia General Assembly—and without any limitations.
In spite of this, a U.S. District Court judge ruled against Turner.
He appealed to the federal court of appeals and it also ruled against him. The opinion was written by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was sitting on the three-judge panel hearing the case.
IT ISN’T OVER
But now, four years after the dismissal of Turner’s case, the nation’s highest court will hear similar arguments.
Turner is not surprised.
“Even then, when they refused to hear it, I knew that it wasn’t over,” Turner said.
Turner said he thinks the Supreme Court has probably decided to hear the case of Greece v. Galloway because similar cases have popped up in counties all over the country in the past few years, from California to Florida and New York to Tennessee, according to a 2012 Associated Press article.
A large number of Republicans on Capitol Hill, as well as the Obama administration, have come out in support of allowing sectarian prayers at meetings.
Turner hopes the support will not stop there.
“I pray that this case gets overwhelming support [from], not just myself, but others that want to really see prayer return to America,” Turner said. “Because the moral fiber of America has eroded so much so it’s almost like anything goes, but Christians are persecuted because of their beliefs.”
Bridget Balch: 540/374-5417